Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Carmen

Bizet/Bremner
Mid Wales Opera
Buxton Opera House
28 September 2014

Harnessing the considerable creative talents of Jonathan Miller, Rory Bremner and Nicholas Cleobury, Mid Wales Opera have pushed the boat out to celebrate their 25th anniversary. They have come up with a new production of Bizet’s Carmen. And it certainly is different. Some might say perversely so.

After all, we each have our own idea of what the Gypsy sex-bomb should be. But a fair-skinned maiden with long blonde hair? Well, that is what we have here. But before you cry out in alarm, let me tell you that the singer is the multi-award winning Australian mezzo Helen Sherman, an RNCM graduate. She is compelling, vocally and visually. No dark Gypsy, for sure, but sensuous, smouldering and tantalising. She twists the soldiers round her little finger.

Under Miller’s direction the production is strangely restrained and muted. Several of the key dramatic moments – for instance, Carmen’s escape and even her end (shot rather than stabbed) – are underplayed.  And designer Nicky Shaw’s austere grey set doesn’t help. When the factory exterior converts into the smugglers’ lair in the mountains, it is monolithic and cumbersome.

I longed for the sense of Spanish sun, heat, colour, ceremony (as in the toreadors’ procession) and, yes, passion. Granada and Seville, referred to in the text, seemed a world away. And there was something of a mismatch between what one was hearing of Bizet’s atmospheric score from the excellent Mid Wales Opera Chamber Orchestra under Nicholas Cleobury and what one was seeing on the stage.

The singing is high quality. Inevitably, with only five soldiers and five factory girls, resources are limited. But the cast are spirited and splendid. The Portuguese tenor Leonel Pinheiro as Don José looks the part and he does build up a head of steam. Nicholas Lester is a towering impressive Escamillo and Elin Pritchard as the unfortunate Micaela sings quite beautifully.

Rory Bremner’s new translation of the libretto works fine, although some of the colloquialisms (such as Escamillo’s “don’t lose your rag” put-down to Don José) jar.

Overall, I found this a pleasurable yet rather lacklustre production, even with Helen Sherman shimmering in the middle. She is scheduled to sing Cherubino in Opera North’s production of The Marriage of Figaro next Spring. Watch out for it.

Reviewer: Philip Radcliffe