You can’t please everyone. The last time Carmen visited the North West it was a confused modern day version set in the American Deep South. Now producer and director Ellen Kent goes back to basics with a show in the classical style that still doesn’t hit the mark.
In sultry Seville the wanton women who work the production line of a tobacco factory drive the men and soldiers of a garrison town to distraction. The soldier Don Jose (Sorin Lupu) is compelled to desert his family, fiancé and duty by his passion for the seductive gypsy Carmen (Nadia Stoianova). But Carmen’s affairs rarely exceed six months and already a Matador is a rival for her affections.
You have to admire Ellen Kent’s achievements as a producer. Even in desperate financial times she has secured funds for a production featuring the Chisinau National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus and to take the opera to towns that would not normally be able to host such a show of such proportions. But as a director she assumes the audience share her commitment and enthusiasm for the genre and makes little effort to involve those who need something beyond a bare bones show to retain their attention.
There is some justification for Kent’s approach. Bizet’s score is magnificent and to hear it played live by a full orchestra stirs the blood even if you don’t understand a word of the text. But as a director Kent lacks imagination and simply enacts what is described in the text.
The cast stroll around the square and the workers emerge from the factory smoking fags exactly as described in the surtitles. The soloists perform standing centre stage as if singing in a concert rather than acting in a drama. The stiff movement of the cast gives the show an artificial atmosphere. It is as though Kent feels that the quality of the music and singing alone are enough to satisfy the audience without any additional drama generated by acting.
The leisurely pace of the show affects credibility. Although Lupu and Stoianova are fine singers there is a fatal lack of chemistry between them. The charismatic Stoianova gives Carmen a sweet nature contrary to the amoral femme fatale you might expect.
Practical aspects of the production create unnecessary irritations. Concentration is affected by the time taken to achieve scene and costume changes.
Opera purists might respond positively to Kent’s less-is- more approach to the genre but audiences who are not already converted to her cause are likely to wish that greater effort had been made to draw out the drama.