Despite having sung with Bristol Opera in recent years, I’ve somehow managed to reach my fabulous forties without ever having attended a professional opera.Yesterday I cut my operatic teeth on Bizet’s Carmen, one of the best-known operas in the world. Of course, like buses, after this 40+ year cultural desert, I’ll be returning three days later to see Wiliam Tell, another of the three performances which make up Welsh National Opera’s Autumn season, Liberty or Death! Moses in Egypt completes the trio.
Bizet’s Carmen tells the story of a free spirit who would rather die than surrender her liberty. The opera is performed over four acts with just one interval.
Soldier Don Jose’s mother hopes he’ll marry childhood friend Micaela but he’s attracted to Carmen, a worker at the tobacco factory. Carmen is arrested for fighting with a fellow worker but after flirting with Don Jose, he helps her escape. He’s punished with a prison sentence during which Escamillo, a bullfighter, falls for Carmen. When released from prison Carmen persuades Don Jose to desert the army to join her and a band of smugglers. After a while Carmen leaves Jose and takes up with the bullfighter instead. Carmen goes to the bullfight to watch her new lover but in a jealous rage Jose confronts and kills her.
As with the ballet we saw last week, the orchestra is at audience level, instead of in the pit. Our seats are quite far back in row Q of the stalls, underneath the grand circle, so a reasonable distance from the stage. From this position I’m more aware than usual of extraneous noise in the form of a group of young men sniggering a few rows behind us alongside the usual rustling of sweet wrappers. If possible, it may be wise to avoid this area at the rear of the stalls if anyone in your party has hearing problems.
We hear the orchestra tuning their instruments, applause for the conductor and a stirring overture before the curtain rises.
Written by Bizet, Carmen is performed in French. Although I have a reasonable grasp of French, I’m very grateful for the subtitles which appear high above stage.
A vast stage, bare apart from some wooden chairs and a few guns propped against the wall, represents the army barracks.
Jessica Muirhead as Micaela stands out here as she sings with beautiful clarity.
When Carmen appears on stage I’m surprised to see that Alessandra Volpe who plays the role is quite heavily pregnant. I find this a little distracting as it doesn’t really fit with the role of Carmen, this wild gypsy girl who attracts male attention wherever she goes. Alessandra has one of those seemingly effortless mezzo sprano voices but from where we’re sitting she’s not always audible over the volume of the orchestra or other singers.
At the end of act one the curtain comes down but the lights don’t come up. There’s a bit of comedic confusion as a few members of the audience prepare to leave for the interval – only there isn’t one until after act two!
The bar scene is also very simple with chairs and tables and a horizontal red band of light right across the side and back of the stage. As the lighting’s muted it’s not always easy to engage with the performers.
In this act the highlight for me is the stirring male chorus.
I was expecting Carmen to be an active character, dancing wildy around the stage but she often remains seated – even when singing. When Jose arrives she orders food and gently dances. She persuades Don Jose to ignore the army bugle and desert.
The real interval comes after act 2 and the house lights come up!
This act is set at the gloomy smugglers camp.
The women gather and enjoy reading tarot cards predicting happy futures for them. Carmen is shocked when hers predicts death.
The performances of Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercedes are memorable along with another strong performance by Micaela which is greeted by enthusiastic applause.
The bullfight. In this final act the visuals come alive with big baskets of oranges, colourful highlights in the costumes and red fans.
The crowd waving energetically through the rope barrier and the interspersed slow motion sequences are very effective.
Don Jose pleads with Carmen but she has moved on and refuses to come back to him. She runs into him, head butting him like a bull and he kills her in a jealous rage.
Carmen is conducted by James Southall.
Mezzo-soprano Alessandra Volpe sings the title role of Carmen, with Peter Wedd as Don Jose, and Kostas Smoriginas singing Escamillo, Aidan Smith sings the role of Zuniga.
The Welsh National Orchestra performs Bizet’s score.
Jessica Muirhead is superb as Micaela
The colourful act four with the slow motion and rope barrier effects
Bizet’s score is lively and memorable. Both the orchestral and vocal performances were fabulous.
I was very pleased not to have taken the children as I’m certain that even the ten year old would have struggled to sit through this lengthy performance.
I went to the theatre expecting a vibrant, colourful performance full of energetic gypsy dancing but it didn’t really live up to my expectations. The voice of Alessandra Volpe as Carmen was mellow and her appearance as a gypsy temptress was convincing but at times she wasn’t clearly audible, especially when singing duets or alongside a loud orchestral piece.
The muted colours of the stage, scenery and costumes coupled with the low level lighting were visually disappointing and didn’t echo the beautiful energetic music. Moody low level lighting and lack of spotlights on key performers sometimes made it difficult to immediately locate who was singing.
Act four was by far the most interesting visually and demonstrated some really acting techniques.
I’m looking forward to seeing how William Tell on Saturday might compare.
Welsh National Opera is the national opera company for Wales. WNO is funded by the Arts Councils of Wales and England to provide large scale opera across Wales and to major cities in the English regions.