Friday 3 June 2022

An engaging new Carmen from Opera Holland Park that adjusts tradition rather than reinventing it, returning the work to its Opera Comique roots

Bizet: Carmen - Oliver Johnston, Kezia Bienek - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)
Bizet: Carmen - Oliver Johnston, Kezia Bienek - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)

Bizet: Carmen; Kezia Bienek, Oliver Johnston, Alison Langer, Thomas Mole, director: Cecilia Stinton, conductor: Lee Reynolds; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed 2 June 2022 (★★★★½) 

A production that went back to Carmen's Opera Comique roots and successfully combined tradition and innovation, with some strong performances all round

For all its rattling good tunes and iconic plot, Bizet's Carmen is an opera that is difficult to get right on the stage. For all the Spanish setting, this was a work created by four Frenchmen, and despite Carmen's robustly independent outlook, she is a heroine created as an idea in response to the male gaze. As the programme book for Opera Holland Park's new production of the opera points out, in the work Carmen makes few personal statements, she reveals little of herself and the men in the opera paint their fantasies on her.

For the second new production of the season, Cecilia Stinton directed Bizet's Carmen at Opera Holland Park (seen 2 June 2022), with Kezia Bienek as Carmen, Oliver Johnston as Don Jose, Thomas Mole as Escamillo, Alison Langer as Micaela, Natasha Agarwal as Frasquita, Ellie Edmonds as Mercedes, Jacob Phillips as Zuniga, Jevan McAuley as Morales, Themba Mvula as La Dancaire, and Mike Bradley as Le Remendado. Lee Reynolds conducted the City of London Sinfonia with Opera Holland Park Chorus and a children's chorus arranged through Cardinal Vaughan School. Designs were by takis, lighting by Johanne Jensen, and choreography by Isabel Baquero.

The production seems to be director Cecilia Stinton's first project with a major company, she has assisted on previous Opera Holland Park productions and was the associate director for the Young Artists performances of Verdi's La Traviata in 2018, which featured Alison Langer as Violetta. Thomas Mole is also a former OHP Young Artist (from Verdi's Un ballo in maschera in 2019), whilst Jacob Philips was the Count in last year's Young Artists performances of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. Kezia Bienek made her debut with OHP last year as Beppe in Mascagni's L'amico Fritz.

Bizet: Carmen - Oliver Johnston, Kezia Bienek, Ellie Edmonds - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)
Bizet: Carmen - Oliver Johnston, Kezia Bienek, Ellie Edmonds - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)

The version used was what might be called the traditional Opera Comique one, spoken dialogue (heavily trimmed, but present), no modish modern accretions to the score and a small-ish orchestra using conductor Lee Reynolds own very effective orchestral reduction. The chorus was similarly compact (20 singers). Stinton and Reynolds were true to this Opera Comique element throughout the piece, there was rarely an element of grand opera manqué about the work, and this is an advantage to an opera which can easily suffer from companies desires to over egg things. Everything here was light and tight, with a mixture of humour and seriousness.

It is worth bearing in mind that if you read a synopsis of the plot of Carmen, only the very end would really veer away from typical Opera Comique fare and much of it reads like the plot of a work such as Offenbach's operetta Les brigands. But Bizet's presentation, with a heroine who most definitely veers away from the traditional, moves the opera into other territory, yet even as far as Act Four, there are elements that look and sound like a typical Opera Comique, notably the ensembles and the treatment of the smaller characters. Stinton did not shy away from this, and created production which was rooted firmly in Opera Comique tradition yet respected the way Carmen and Micaela, in particular, move towards more serious territory. The trajectory of the production led us in a clear path from beginning to end, without the lurch into high seriousness which can come between Acts Two and Three.

This was a traditional production, yet one which successfully looked at tradition and introduced innovations and adjustments. Takis sets (using elements from his sets for this season's Eugene Onegin, see my review) created a series of striking and effective settings which had a slightly Spanish flavour to them. Costumes were largely traditional, but despite some flounces for the women and other traditional elements, we never went full-on flamenco, there were no dancers, though Natasha Agarwal playing Frasquita is a trained dancer (she was All England Young Dancer of the Year in 2013). Dance drifted in and out of the staging, particularly in Act Two.

Bizet: Carmen - Jevan McAuley, Jacob Philips, chorus - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)
Bizet: Carmen - Jevan McAuley, Jacob Philips, Kezia Bienek, chorus - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)

Act One showed us both the guard house and inside the tobacco factory with women working. Throughout the production Stinton successfully used the whole of the stage and really brought the backdrop of Seville to life, and not just on stage, the opening of Act Four erupted into the audience too. Action started during the prelude, introducing the various characters, and throughout Act One there was a strong sense of the life of the town. The women of the factory were not deliberately sexy, the attentions of the men during the women's first chorus was definitely unwanted. Instead throughout Acts One and Two there was a sense of the women half mockingly putting on a show for the soldiers, typified by Carmen's first entry when to the male chorus' cries of 'La Carmencita', Frasquita (Natasha Agarwal) and Mercedes (Ellie Edmonds) appear, and the men unknowingly respond to them. The women are laughing when Kezia Bienek's Carmen makes her entry from another direction; a small but telling detail.

Keiza Bienek was a lithe and attractive Carmen, with a lovely strong, focused middle and lower register. Her famous solos were all finely and seductively sung, yet there was a sense of performance, of her putting on a show and hiding her real self. She was clearly an independent woman, with plenty of humour in her attitude to men, sexuality was part of her armoury rather than her defining characteristic. The Act Three card trio was finely delivered from the fore-stage, Bienek's strong, serious tone contrasting with the light charm of Agarwal and Edmonds, yet this was just a strand to Carmen's personality, she lived in the moment. In Act Four, Bienek's Carmen revelled in the attention and the end was certainly not fatalistic, this Carmen struggled.

There is little that you can do to make a modern man of Don Jose, his outlook is narrow and traditional. Like many major operatic heroes of the 19th century, Oliver Johnston's Don Jose did not seem the brightest button in the box. His behaviour during Acts One and Two clearly showed that he did not cope with the idea of another point of view than his own; in a sense Don Jose is a born foot-soldier, solidly following orders. Johnston's voice has a firm, full sound, which has a robust element to it that suited the character. His delivery of his great Act Two moment was creditably done, and strongly in character. We never got any sense of the singer suddenly pinging into 'my big aria', and Johnston had a nice use of head voice. This seems to be his biggest role to date, and Don Jose is definitely a big sing. Admirably Johnston's voice remained strong and secure until the end. Perhaps his Act Four moments lacked ideal intensity, but even here you felt he was staying in character.

Bizet: Carmen - Thomas Mole, chorus - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)
Bizet: Carmen, Act 2 - Thomas Mole, chorus - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)

Thomas Mole made a vibrantly characterful Escamillo, managing to perform this impossible role in a finely musical way. He brought a lithely youthful element to the character whilst his voice never disappeared when descending into the lower reaches, and he strutted his stuff magnificently (in Act Four, in particular). Alison Langer's Micaela was in deliberate contrast to Bienek's Carmen. Slightly plain, very demurely dressed and perhaps rather bookish, Langer's Micaela had a quiet strength to her behind the demure exterior, a determination which showed throughout her performance in Act Three including a superb account of that act's solo.

The other characters are all strong Opera Comique types, and the production built on this to provide a stylistically confident backdrop to the action, aided by fine performances from the young singers in the roles. Agarwal and Edmonds made a terrific double act as Frasquita and Mercedes, both with a knowing element when dealing with their men folk, successfully balancing humour with more serious elements. Jacob Philips as Zuniga and Jevan McAuley as Morales were neat foils to the women, tantalised and rarely satisfied. Both men gave a strong idea of the combination of boredom and entitlement that the characters embody, and both sang well too! Themba Mvula and Mike Bradley as Le Dancaire and Le Remendado made a delightful double act, light and pure Opera Comique, but never sending things up. 

The chorus had plenty of work to do, populating the stage with characters throughout the opera as well as contributing to the danced elements in Act Two. They made a lithe and vibrant sound which chimed in with this production's sound world. The large children's chorus (21 of them) made a strong  and lively contribution to Acts One and Act Four.

Bizet: Carmen - Natasha Agarwal, Ellie Edmonds, Kezia Bienek - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)
Bizet: Carmen, Act 3 - Natasha Agarwal, Ellie Edmonds, Kezia Bienek - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)

In the pit, Lee Reynolds and the City of London Sinfonia seemed to relish the pace and sense of detail that this approach to Bizet's music brought. Reynold's kept the action pacey, but always with a fine ear for the complexity of Bizet's orchestrations. Balance was always good; with a largely youthful cast and several role debuts Reynolds managed to be highly supportive yet drawing characterful playing and thus giving us plenty to enjoy.

The work was sung in creditable and comprehensible French, whilst the dialogue was delivered clearly. The theatre is perhaps not an idea one for spoken work, and here there was a trenchant element to the spoken text which worked satisfactory. And Carmen with out the various underscorings and moments of melodrama is a work shorn of one of its major elements, so it was good that everything was present here.

This was a production that respected the opera's roots but did not follow tradition unquestioningly. Opera Holland Park's audience includes a significant number of people for whom going to the opera is a rare activity. This production had the possibility of being many people's first exposure to Carmen. As such Stinton and Reynolds gave us a finely calibrated and wonderful engaging account that managed to tell the story in the right way yet be full of details to be enjoyed by those of us who have been experiencing Carmen productions for many decades (I first saw the work in the late 1970s at the Edinburgh Festival with Teresa Berganza and Placido Domingo).

Bizet: Carmen - chorus & children's chorus - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)
Bizet: Carmen, Act 4 - chorus & children's chorus - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)

I said at the beginning that Carmen is a difficult opera to get right. Here Stinton and Reynolds managed that delicate balancing act. Stinton opted to adjust tradition rather than go against it, and her production was all the stronger for it and this was reinforced by the strong performances from all concerned.

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Emotional atmospheres: a wonderfully lucid production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin opens Opera Holland Park's 2022 season - opera review
  • Real music-making of the highest standards: the Swiss youth orchestra "il mosaico" is caught on tour in Italy by composer Edward Lambert - concert review
  • Premiered in Norwich in 1936, the Norfolk & Norwich Festival give a celebratory performance of Vaughan Williams' Five Tudor Portraits - concert review
  • A forgotten voice from an earlier era: Mr Onion's Serenade - Mandolin Music of the Edwardian Era - record review
  • What a lovely night: an evening inspired by Jenny Lind's charity concerts in Norwich - concert review
  • Enjoyment and discovery: Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli Consort & Players in Bach's Ascension Oratorio at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Adventurous and exciting: So Percussion and Caroline Shaw at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival - concert review
  • Time corkscrews inwards: Tom Coult on clocks, time & humanity in Alice Birch & his new opera Violet - interview
  • Musical treats: Richard Jones' production of Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila fails to convince, but there is much to listen to - opera review
  • Intensely evocative: Arun Ghosh's spiritual jazz re-imagining of St Francis of Assisi's The Canticle of the Sun premieres in Norwich - concert review
  • Striking music, terrific performances: the modern day premiere of Handel's pasticcio Caio Fabbricio based on music by Hasse - opera review
  • Rewarding collaboration: Daniel Pioro and Erland Cooper perform live together for the first time at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival - concert review
  • The Wreckers returns: Glyndebourne's vividly dramatic new production of Ethel Smyth's opera - opera review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month