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by on 15 March 2022

Sultry Spanish Seduction


by Georges Bizet, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy

Sembla and Ellen Kent Productions at Richmond Theatre until 14th March, then on tour until 8th May

Review by Claire Alexander

Richmond Theatre was packed last night to see Ellen Kent’s production of Bizet’s Carmen.  Richmond may only be a tube ride from the grand opera houses of central London but this is a rare opportunity to see top class opera on your own doorstep.

When I opened the programme to see that the orchestra was the Orchestra of the Ukrainian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, Kiev, and the conductor (Vasyl Vasylenko) their artistic director, and most of the singers either Ukrainian, Moldovan and even Russian, the evening suddenly achieved a new poignancy.  And so somehow did the story of Carmen and Don Jose’s fatal choice between duty and family.  

The story may need no introduction to opera lovers: Carmen, the cigarette girl, the ultimate temptress with her manipulative sexuality, first draws soldier Don Jose under her spell, and then toreador and local hero Escamillo falls into the same trap.  Don Jose is fatally torn between his allegiance to his beloved Michaela, the girl from his home village – an innocent childhood romance perhaps – and simpler feelings and loyalty to his mother.  One has the feeling that charismatic Escamillo shares with Carmen the same arrogant sexuality unmatched by their peers.

Unsurprisingly, Carmen also has a stake in the local smuggler gang and when they arrive to persuade her away on a new smuggling mission, she taunts Don Jose mercilessly on his loyalty to his regiment and his betrothed Michaela.  Carmen’s lure proves too much and he betrays everything important to him by running away with the smugglers.  Hiding away in the mountains, left to guard the contraband, he is found by ever faithful Michaela and Escamillo.    The inevitable duel is interrupted by Carmen who once again taunts him with his past life.  She returns, victorious, with Escamillo to the bullfight but whilst Escamillo is in the ring, a moody and ponderous Don Jose returns and, nothing more powerful than a man spurned, finally kills Carmen.

All this set against the backdrop of the feria and processions of a sultry southern Spain, where tempers run high and life and its intrigues are lived outside. 

Bizet’s music needs no introduction either from the first chord of the overture, and many of the choruses and arias are instantly recognisable – the Habiniera – when Carmen sings of for ever being free, Escamillo’s Toreador song and some of the most intense love duets in the opera repertoire. 

This production is relatively simple – one unchanging set – a broadly classical square that might be found in any southern Mediterranean country – with a few additional touches to represent the square, the tavern, the bull-ring and the smugglers hideout in the mountains. I wasn’t entirely sure about this set – it was a bit oppressive and it seemed to limit the performing space both in the expanse of great Spanish cuadrados and the mountain haunts of the smugglers, and I think this constrained the atmosphere somewhat.  But I understand this simplicity, given that this is a touring production, playing often one night at a time throughout the whole of the UK in six months from January to May of this year.  But the costumes make up for this, being bright and lively. 

From the outset, the small chorus, a key part in this opera both vocally and as a very active part in the story, impressed.   I was especially struck by a small group of younger men by their vocal accuracy and commitment.  Similarly the cigarette girls as they spill out from the factory on their break and as a fight breaks out between Carmen and one of her colleagues.  Their constant movement, dancing and focus to their actions gave this chorus a real sense of involvement rather than just being bystanders which can so often happen in opera choruses.  One of the joys too is the way Ellen Kent’s production gives groups of local children and young adults an opportunity to be part of a production, in this case with their part in the famous children’s chorus (the night I saw it with Stagecoach Theatre Arts, Isleworth, and Capital Children’s Choir).  They made a really genuine ramshackle group mimicking the march of the soldiers.  I was sad not to see them return in the famous march of the Toreadors chorus at the end of the opera, but I suppose it was late!

Of the principals, Carmen (Katerina Timbaliuk) was at moments spellbinding as a taunting sexual predator and her uninhibited and committed performance at least matched her vocals.  Don Jose (Sorin Lupu) interestingly was at his best in the more melancholic parts of the role and I wanted more passion from all in the duets with both Michaela and Carmen.  But I loved the opening tableau where we see him brooding, almost obsessive like, over a statue-like Carmen.  I have always felt that Michaela has some of the most memorable score, not as well-known as other parts of the opera, and Alyona Kistenyova did not disappoint in her sensitive portrayal of this much underrated role.  Racovita Petru gave his Escamillo commitment and charisma.

Conductor Vasyl Vasylenko and the Ukrainian Orchestra gave a spirited and well articulated performance – certainly taking the many set pieces at pace which maintained the energy of the production.  

Overall I feel this production really told the story with clarity and focus.  What it might have lacked was a sense of expanse, grandeur and excitement.  This was a far more personal Carmen which provided an intriguing new perspective.  I think however, as I reflected after the performance, that overall one needs the grand excitement and hot temper of the lively carnival life to contrast against the intensity and danger of the smugglers life, which is equally reflected in the scoring.  And likewise the contrast also provides a clearer context for Don Jose’s agonising and ultimately fatal actions.

But I must finish where I started.  This was a Ukrainian Orchestra and Conductor, from Kiev. Most of the company are from Ukraine and surrounding countries.  As I write bombs threaten to fall on their city, perhaps even their opera house, and, god forbid, their families.  I cannot imagine the turmoil that this company must be feeling. They started this tour of the UK in early January and it goes on until May, during which, for many, their lives at home may have been utterly uprooted.  Perhaps the most profound moment of the whole evening came at the end, during the curtain call when they unfurled the Ukrainian flag and sang the Ukrainian national anthem with a deep passion that would have matched anything in Bizet’s score.   I was humbled, and the solidarity of the appreciative Richmond audience was palpable.  I am left with a profound sense of the power of art that will always survive and heal.   

I wish this company every good fortune as they complete this tour and beyond.

Claire Alexander, March 2022

Photography courtesy of Ellen Kent Opera  

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