What more is there to say about ‘Carmen’, most familiar of operas? One answer to that is given in Matthew Bourne’s ballet now showing to great acclaim at the Royal Albert Hall. Another is provided by the new production at Opera Holland Park. This is quite a traditional production in terms of setting and direction, but there is nothing wrong in that. After all part of the opera’s great appeal to commentators and audiences since its premiere in 1875 is its rapidity of action, the emotional lucidity and vivid characterisation, and attractive melody and orchestral swagger. Any production that releases these qualities in its performers deserves credit. But there needs to be something more, which in this case is a distinctive feminism which asserts itself most memorably in the second half as Carmen fights for and sustains her freedom in a variety of ways.
The opera relies on flexible yet authentic Spanish settings – a tobacco factory for the opening confrontations; a prison where Carmen beguiles Don Jose to release her; a tavern for gypsy plotting and carousing and the final confrontation on the fringes of a bullfight. The simple, flexible sets by takis provide a supple hinged framework for all the incidents and accidents and concealments, and the chorus fans out into the audience aisles charmingly at points to involve us in the crowd action. Again, the walkway around the orchestra pit came into its own, particularly in the final show-down, and could have had even more use to help project some of the voices over the orchestra.
The City of London Sinfonia under the debonair and dynamic Lee Reynolds set us off at a cracking pace in the rousing overture, and the woodwind and brass were particularly successful in highlighting the incisive military rhythms of the military music while the dark chromatics of the lower strings gave anticipations of the tragic denouement to come. There is a lot to keep on track here – choruses involving a large number of children, moments of dark introspection, public showmanship, large-scale choreography. Great scope for things to go awry, in other words – but in the set-pieces and the most famous of the character arias all went smoothly.
The four main roles showcased some really excellent voices. In the title role Kezia Bienek has the difficult task of having to come on at full wattage to set the action rolling in the factory role. She took time to warm up, offering more disdain than seduction in the opening scenes. Perhaps she was affected by the sudden cold weather swirling around Holland Park. But in the second half her self-assertion against masculine norms in general, not just unwanted lovers, was a delight to see and hear. Oliver Johnston offered a full-throated, powerful, yet lyrical performance as her frustrated and frustrating lover, Don Jose. His detailed acting also usefully anticipated the uncontrolled violence to which he gives way at the end. This helped draw the threads of the drama together more tightly.
Thomas Mole as the toreador Escamillo has a role that contains the most famous aria in the opera. But he managed to find a freshness and fervour of phrasing here that helped us to hear the piece with new ears and very much in dramatic context. Though slightly built for a putative bullfighter, he generated a lot of stage presence and engaged very sympathetically with the chorus. Alison Langer has the unenviable role of Micaëla, the traditionally virtuous counterpoise to Carmen, who tries to persuade Don Jose to return home to tend to his sick mother. Yet through a combination of really fine, urgent, singing and forceful acting, she lifts this part from gender-stereotyping into something very impressive and compelling.
We need to say something of the chorus and minor roles, all of whom act convincingly and sing with precision. Director Cecilia Stinton has ensured that the stage is not just filled but populated by a crowd all living out their own individual stories very credibly. The final few performances will be very much worth catching even though a trip to Seville via Holland Park may require blankets and scarves on the night.