Carmen (Mid Wales Opera on tour)

Jonathan Miller’s stripped-back staging is well sung but fails to catch fire

Jonathan Miller‘s record as an opera director over the years has been unpredictable. There have been wonderful iconic productions (ENO’s Rigoletto and The Mikado, often revived, never forgotten), but also productions where nothing seems to happen. By and large, Mid Wales Opera‘s Carmen is one of these, a strongly sung performance hampered by inert direction and the limitations of the reduction of the score to ten musicians.

Helen Sherman in the title role of Carmen (Mid Wales Opera)
Helen Sherman in the title role of Carmen (Mid Wales Opera)
© Robert Workman

Given that Miller has the highly experienced and well regarded Elaine Tyler-Hall as assistant director/choreographer, the lack of dramatic interest is particularly disappointing. True, Nicky Shaw‘s drab and clunky designs don’t help, but so much talent could surely show more sign of imagination. Costumes suggest a 1940s film noir, but whether we’re to make a link to Franco is unclear.

If you go to an opera for the singing, however – as we all do to an extent – there is much to praise in this Carmen. Helen Sherman‘s honeyed mezzo is beautifully controlled, expressive and intelligently used, though we have to wait till act 4 for the passion. Finely sung throughout, this is also the most lady-like Carmen I’ve ever encountered. Vocally Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Mercedes) and Daisy Brown (Frasquita) blend beautifully with Sherman, but again the relationship is cosily domestic: when Sherman tingles the spine with predictions of death in the Card scene, they exchange "Get her!" looks as though she’s a troublesome neighbour.

'Bizet's orchestral sound is anticipated but never realised'

Leonel Pinheiro‘s Don José is the most interesting performance. Constricted vocally and stiffly acted in act 1, he sings with increasing freedom throughout the evening and in acts 3 and 4 his ringing tenor consistently excites. True, lyricism is in short order and there is no chemistry between him and Sherman, just distance, but his second half singing is genuinely thrilling. Michaela (Elin Pritchard) is beautifully sung and under-characterised, but Escamillo has built-in brio and Nicholas Lester‘s smoothly sung matador is the most arresting character on stage. All the singers, incidentally, excel at putting across Rory Bremner‘s pleasing translation.

Mid Wales Opera tackles Carmen with four chorus members (plus those singers whose characters are not involved in the scene) and a chamber orchestra of ten: five strings including guitar, three woodwind, trumpet and percussion. Under the direction of Nicholas Cleobury it works well enough, once you get used to major themes being entrusted to xylophone, but the evening serves as a reminder of the contrasts Bizet creates in orchestral sound, anticipated here, but never realised. Oddly enough, in this stripped down version Carmen, with its succession of great tunes, almost sounds like the first musical, even down to its "Watching all the girls go by" opening number!

Mid Wales Opera’s production of Carmen tours widely throughout England and Wales until November 13th.