Carmen: The Grange Festival

Almost before the overture, the opera opened with Aicha Kossoko and
Tonderai Munyevu on-stage, almost conjuring the piece from a large shawl.
Throughout, Kossoko and Munyevu acted as guides and interpreters, telling
us what was going on and involving themselves in the action, as if they
were using magic to create the story for us. The French dialogue was
stripped to the bone (in what production is it not, nowadays), with Kossoko
and Munyevu adding detail and background. The disadvantage of this was that
there were places where, instead of hearing the characters developing in
dialogue, we were told what was happening. But this version respected
Bizet’s mixed use of sung passages, melodrama and pure spoken text which is
one of the opera’s distinctive features.

Conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud studied with Manuel Rosenthal, who himself
played the violin at the Opera Comique in the 1920s and knew people who had
taken part in the premiere of Carmen. Whilst the programme book
credited Fritz Oeser’s edition of the opera, the version used by Tingaud
was admirably traditional and avoided any of Oeser’s eccentricities.

In many other respects, Bizet’s Carmen is a tricky opera to get
right. Arden and Parker clearly understood that, on a stage the size of the
Grange Festival’s less is more. Parker’s set was a simple textured black
backdrop (only in later acts did we realise it was made up of hundreds of
draped shawls), with the metal superstructure beneath being revealed at
times. The playing area was articulated with platforms and ramps moved by
the cast. There was very little scene setting, instead Arden used her young
cast to admirable effect, this was very much about the characters and the
ensemble. Arden and Parker (jointly credited with the movement) drew a
highly expressive, very physical performance from the ensemble which
engaged throughout. Costumes were modern-dress, loosely 1970s with standard
fatigues for the soldiers.

Whilst I was not keen on the use of the two narrators, Kossoko and Munyevu,
I cannot fault their performance. Elsewhere in the opera, Arden had a good
feel for Bizet’s distinctive stylistic mix. I enjoyed the way she brought
out the musical comedy aspect of the smugglers Dancaire (Tiago Matos),
Christophe Ponce de Solage (Remendado) and their girls Frasquita (Marianne
Croux) and Mercedes (Filipa van Eck), without ever resorting to low comedy.
Tingaud ensured that the music for these four, particularly the ensembles,
was nicely pointed but things could turn nasty in an instant such as the
ensemble after the card trio in Act Three, which started light but then at
the end the smugglers round on Don Jose.

The Israeli mezzo-soprano Na’ama Goldman sprang to fame in 2012 when she
stepped in at the last moment to sing the title role in Carmen at
the Masada Festival. She made an enchanting and unhackneyed Carmen,
bringing a freshness to the role. In a theatre the size of The Grange she
was able to sing Carmen’s solos with a beautifully shaped, unforced line,
sometimes reducing both musical and physical gesture down to telling
details. She managed to convey Carmen’s complex mix, so that the fatalism
in the later acts did not come out of nowhere, and she avoided gloomy
portentousness. The voice had a lightness to it, and a nice sheen, but the
lower register still told.

American-Italian tenor Leonardo Capalbo is a lyric who seems to be moving
into more dramatic territory. He really brought out Don Jose’s neediness
and sense of obsession, creating a strong portrait the character’s downward
spiral. Thanks to the extra information from Kossoko and Munyevu we knew
that he already had gambling problems and Capalbo’s Don Jose was flawed
from the beginning of the action. Musically I felt that there were times
when Capalbo was pushing a little against the grain of his voice. Moments
like ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetÈe’ were best when he sang with a quiet,
unforced lyricism. But Don Jose is as much about character as about beauty
of tone, and Capalbo showed musicality and intelligence here.

Shelley Jackson made a warmly expressive Micaela, though she seemed to take
time to really find her feet. The Act One duet with Capalbo was nicely sung
but did not quite achieve the sense of radiant innocence which it needs,
but in Act Three Jackson really brought out Micaela’s hidden reserves of

The standard of sung French was a little variable, but on the whole
creditable though Capalbo sometimes resorted to Italian vowels. Baritone
Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo impressed because he not only sang with decent
French but actually sang with elements of French style giving the music a
slight nasal twang which was perfect. In this relatively small theatre, he
was able to demonstrate his nicely fluid top, and decent low notes in the
Toreadors song. For all the fame of the music, this is a role which can
easily fall flat in the theatre, and Rhodes ensured that it didn’t.

The smaller roles were all finely done, acutely avoiding caricature and
seamlessly forming part of the dynamic and dramatic ensemble. Filipa van
Eck and Marianne Croux made a fine pairing as Mercedes and Frasquita,
creating a neat double act whilst differentiating the characters and
forming a fine foil for Goldman’s Carmen. Tiago Matos and Christophe Poncet
de Solages caught the operetta elements of Le Dancaire and le Remendado but
made it a characterful double act which never fell into hackneyed comedy.
Grigory Soloviov was a handsome but dim Zuniga, whilst Toby Girling created
a character out of very little with Morales.

The chorus was almost a character in its own right singing with unforced
enthusiasm and engaging charm, whilst creating a very vivid dramatic
atmosphere thanks to Arden and Parker’s extensive movement plot. The
performance took advantage of the youth of the singers to project with
lively engagement.

In the pit, Jean-Luc Tingaud brought a real sense of style, drawing some
nicely sophisticated performances from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
whilst never pushing the piece too far in the direction of either operetta
or grand tragedy.

The sound design rather favoured the spoken narrators too much so that
Kossoko and Munyevu seemed to be operating in a different aural world to
the rest of the cast. A more naturalistic balance might have made their
contributions less intrusive.

Ultimately this was quite a dark production, which respected Bizet’s
overall drama but brought light and shade by respecting the style and
character of the music. Arden drew vivid performances from all of her
ensemble, and whilst I was less enamoured of the idea of using the
narrators, I cannot fault the performers for the vividness of the
engagement and the strong sense of style.

Robert Hugill

Bizet: Carmen

The Grange Festival, 11 June 2017

Director: Annabel Arden, designer: Joanna Parker

Conductor: Jean-Luc Tingau, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Carmen: Na’ama Goldman, Don Jose: Leonardo Capalbo, Micaela: Shelley
Jackson, Escamillo: Phillip Rhodes, Mercedes: Filipa van Eck, Frasquita:
Marianne Croux, Dancaire: Tiago Matos, Remendado: Christophe Poncet de
Solage, Zuniga: Gregory Siloviov, Mora

image_description=Carmen, The Grange Festival 2017
product_title=Carmen, The Grange Festival 2017
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Tiago Matos, Christophe Poncet de Solages, Philip Rhodes, Na’ama Goldman

Photo credit: Robert Workman