I caught up with the new WNO production of Bizet’s Carmen the other night in Oxford and can report that it is truly excellent both musically and dramatically. One reason, of course, is the superb and engaging Carmen of French mezzo Virginia Verrez. Not only is she a superb singer blessed with a beautiful voice, so that you find yourself wishing to hear much more music as performed and interpreted by this wonderful mezzo, but the acting makes you truly believe in the character as a “free soul” and not some sort of vampire-style, femme fatale. Completely engaging at every moment with her singing and acting, Virginie Verrez is, I believe, truly a star in the making, someone at the start of what will be an illustrious career. She reminded me in some ways of both Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett in the way she sang the role. The grace, independence of spirit and wit of Carmen were all strongly conveyed. If for no other reason, you should try to see this production if it comes near you so that you can discover this fine young mezzo-soprano.
But there are plenty of other reasons to see this Carmen. The conceptualization of the opera in a modern day setting (with a very adaptable and intelligent set by Leslie Travers) sets off terrific “Me Too” vibes. In the end, Carmen is the victim of domestic violence. Dimitri Pittas portrays the obsessive darkness of Don Jose and also his shallowness of spirit with real understanding. He falls in love with the energy and beauty of Carmen but he clearly is also threatened by her powerful desire to be unshackled. It seems to me that Pittas has a very fine voice. The night that I attended he was having problems with a chest infection but it did not spoil the general standard of his work. It was heartening, however, in the Lilas Pastia scene, how one of his colleagues managed to give him glasses of water to ease his problems. The woman was a dancer and was able to make it part of the action. After all, he was in a café! There was an announcement about the indisposition of the tenor at the start of the second half, but by then things had settled and Pittas did a fine job of his singing and acting. He got a deserved ovation when he took his bow. And of course there was a very attractive Escamillo. Because of the modernization of the setting we even get to glimpse him in the ring on a TV that everyone at Lilas Pastia’s is watching. Who would not prefer this charming, crowd-pleasing superstar to the dank and dark brooder, Jose? Especially after hearing and seeing Phillip Rhodes playing the role, singing so strongly, and full of confidence and swagger. This is another emerging opera star to watch out for.
All the roles were well-taken and well-rehearsed and all the interpretations added up to presenting the coherent vision of director Jo Davies. I enjoyed the lovely sound of Anita Watson’s sweet natured Micaela who was both timid and bravely resolute as a character; and the camp posturing of Gregory A Smith’s Lilas Pastia (Smith also doubles as the guide). But above all, the WNO orchestra, under Tomas Hanus, sounded utterly wonderful. There were many moments of surprising yet appropriate tempi; and of a sonorous beauty in some passages that were totally gorgeous. Tomas Hanus’s interpretation was muscular, sound and made me listen; he seemed to me to have a conception of the opera as a whole work. I came away reminded that Nietzsche and Brahms were among those who preferred Carmen as a work to all the operas of Wagner.
I am not quite sure about where the update was placing the action. Perhaps it was simply generically modern? But it didn’t matter. Everyone on that stage gives complete and convincing performances and understand the characters being portrayed. Dramatically convincing as well as cogent, musically sound as well as inventive throughout, this is a Carmen to savour, presented as originally conceived for the Opera Comique with spoken dialogue instead of recitatives. On the way out I ran into a young student who was seeing an opera for the first time; and she said that this performance had convinced her that she wanted to experience many more works in this genre.
- By Georges Bizet
- Directed by Jo Davies. Produced by WNO
- Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, based on a story by Prosper Merimee
- Cast includes: Virginie Verrez, Dimitri Pittas, Phillip Rhodes, Anita Watson, Gregory A Smith
- New Theatre, Oxford
- On tour until May 2020
- Time: 3 hours with one interval