It is testimony to the fine reputation that Oxford Operatic Society have built up over their history of over forty years producing musical Theatre and Opera in Oxfordshire that they can attract such good-quality principal singers to their latest offering, Carmen, at the Oxford Playhouse. Appearing in the lead role, Sian Millet, put her professional training to stunning good use expressing both the angry passion and love of life that the gypsy is famous for. Also deserving mention for her delicate singing and very expressive acting is Jennifer Riley Smith taking the part of Micaela, a quiet country girl who is the first love of the flawed hero Don José.
Carmen opens in a Seville of bull-fights, lairy taverns, and colourful factory workers portrayed with gusto by the female chorus. We first encounter Don José as a non-descript corporal from a battalion stationed in Seville, a rather endearing troop of soldiers in the hands of the large and enthusiastic male chorus of the Society. A fight breaks out in the local cigarette factory between Carmen and another worker and Don José is ordered to take Carmen into custody. When he falls prey to her charms and she escapes he is sentenced to spend a month in prison and much to her surprise and that of her friends, a band of smugglers, Carmen waits for his release. Five members of the company are excellent in their performance of the quintet as they try to encourage Carmen to join in their latest adventure and tease her about her unexpected love for Don José.
Now on the run from the army and an unwilling recruit to the smugglers, it is here that Guy Grimsley comes into his own as Don José, giving a fine performance of a young man torn by jealousy and guilt at abandoning his mother and his first love. Carmen's new love, the toreador Escamilio, has a much more carefree outlook on life, and his charisma and charm are well played by Stephen Pascoe. The finale of the Opera takes place outside the bullring in Seville and once again members of female chorus demonstrate their versatility by performing a formal flamenco: Alex Williams showing that not only can he sing as the leader of the smugglers Dancairo, but that he is fleet of foot too. Also deserving mention for their performances as Dancairo’s comrades are the fiesty Hannah Grainger Clemson, seductive Sarah Leatherbarrow and a jocular Simon Tavener.
Julie Todd's clear musical direction was evident as she conducted the tight and well-paced orchestra and the whole production caused evident enjoyment in the audience present. If I have one criticism it is not the chorus themselves, who create a strong and confident sound in all the set pieces, but a query as to whether all of them needed to be on stage at the same time as this left little space the full expression of the choreography and staging. I'm sure by the end of the week the cast will have grown confident in their use of the whole stage and in their ability to portray some of the nuances in character and story development required by this passionate piece.