Carmen – Scottish Opera Review

The following review should appear on the Opera Britannia website in due course.
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Citizens Theatre 7 September 2010

Carmen has been pared to the bone to provide a workaday touring production that will tour the highways and byways of Scotland. Scottish Opera have for many years toured miniature productions to unlikely places. This production can be seen in 8 different venues in the chamber orchestra version which debuted at the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow on 7 September 2010. It then continues to a further 14 far flung venues in performances accompanied by piano alone.

Scottish Opera is a company in some turmoil – the orchestra currently being balloted about new working agreements. At a time of local and public cuts, can a large scale opera also survive repeated artistic snipping at the edges and still bring a coherent experience to unlikely venues around Scotland? On the evidence available on the first night, such an experience is possible. Whether it is terribly exciting is another matter.

It is worth noting that this is the first time that Scottish Opera has crossed the River Clyde to stage anything at the Citizens Theatre in the Gorbals. As anyone from Glasgow knows, the city’s South Side is considerably more remote than Stornoway or Kirkwall, which have previously been included in the small touring productions. It was good then to see the South Side getting an opera production. The Citz itself proving to have a useful acoustic and the perfect size for a cut down show. It would also be an ideal place for genuine small scale baroque productions.

Derek Clark set a brisk pace in the pit from the very beginning, something which seemed to work with his own cut down orchestral score. There is  no getting away from the fact that a band of 16 players cannot sound like a full orchestra yet his new arrangements were generally successful. Even so, there were times, particularly during the first act where the sound seemed a little on the thin side.

Carmen herself was played by Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, bravely sporting a support on her arm after a recent injury. Ms Afonwy-Jones brought a certain sauciness to the stage though this was present only until she had wound Don Jose around her little finger as she sang Tra, la la la in response to all his questions. Once that had been accomplished, any sex appeal disappeared as she simply became one of the smuggling conspirators. Unfortunately it is not that long since Scottish Opera’s last Carmen and the memory of Andrea Szántó sizzling on stage four years ago lingers long in the memory. Ms Szántó left one in no doubt at all about what all the fuss was about. Ms Afonwy-Jones did sometimes leave one wondering. However, a slightly lacklustre lapdance in Act II certainly did seem to get Don Jose going. Robyn Lyn Evans as Don Jose managed to find a great depth of emotion in his subsequent appeal to Carmen. Bizet does not provide a great number of opportunities for his leading man to show off in Carmen. Lyn Evans made the best of things which some spirited duet singing, notably with Claire Watkins as Micaëla. Ms Watkins also brought to the stage the best voice of the evening. Singing with power and conviction, she took control of the stage whenever given the chance. The trouble is, if we all think that Don Jose should have gone back to mother and married Micaëla then the whole plot falls to pieces before our eyes. There was more than a suspicion in this production that he chose the wrong girl and would have had more fun at home with a good catholic girl than with the gypsies.

Caroline MacPhie and Katherine Allen as Frasquita and Mercedes made pleasing sounds but need to work much harder on their diction. If opera is going to be sung in English without the luxury of surtitles then we all need to hear the words and these were very much lacking in some sections, particularly the scene when they were telling their fortunes with cards. One needs no tarot pack to foresee that when they encounter less helpful acoustics in Easterhouse or Oban they will need to enunciate much more clearly. This would be important in any production, but in and English language production which is presumably aimed at audience building, it is vital.

The trend these days is to return to Bizet’s original Opéra Comique intentions and have the spoken word in between the larger arias rather than recitative. It was here that the production got most confusing. Although the programme notes assured us that the setting was Franco’s Spain in the 1960s, who knew that there would have been such a strange collection of accents around at the time? Welsh singer Robyn Lyn Evans showed that you can take the boy out of the valleys but he failed to demonstrate that he had taken the boyo out of the voice. Meanwhile, Carmen herself, who claims to have been kidnapped by the gypsies of Seville appeared to have been sent by them to Roedean to finish her education. Oddly the only actual Spaniard on stage, Francisco Javier Borda appeared to adopt the accent of an Eastern European slav. Far more attention needs to be paid to the speech than was evident in this production.

Michel de Souza managed to find a surprisingly suave inner bullfighter in his Escamillo. He sang perfectly well but there did not appear to be much fire in the belly.

Overall, this was a slightly drab production. The set gave no colour –bare corrugated iron boards that are no doubt suitable for touring. The great chorus numbers were, of course, completely absent. The orchestration was by necessity adequate rather than lush. The singing too was adequate but no-one goes to the opera to hear the merely adequate. At least, no-one does in cities where the expectations of the lyric house reign. Perhaps it might all have felt more successful if seen off the beaten track. That, presumably is the whole point of this production.

Noting the management troubles of Scottish Opera, the greatest fear is that a show like this might foretell not simply solid touring productions of the future, but the cut-down shape of things to come in the cities too.

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