More Grace Kelly than Grace Jones: Welsh National Opera’s Carmen reviewed

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

How do you take your Carmen? Sun-drenched exotic fantasy with a side order of castanets, or cool and gritty, sour with violence and politics? Jo Davies’s new production for Welsh National Opera seems unable to make up its mind. Sternly rejecting colour and fantasy, it then fails to commit to an alternative, leaving both its heroine and audience stranded in an unlovely theatrical no-man’s land.

Programme notes place us in contemporary Brazil, in a favela painted in unvarying textures of brown and steel. But there’s little in the action to confirm this. Who are the soldiers that guard the compound with desultory inefficiency, and what is their relationship to the women they wolf-whistle and the children who run riot around their feet? At the end of Act Two a banner unfurls proclaiming ‘Liberté’, but for whom or from what we never know.

Wire fencing traps us in a grubby tenement block whose courtyard must serve as barracks and bullring, mountains and Lillas Pastia’s bar. Leslie Travers’s designs are efficient and adaptable, but a world where gypsies and soldiers, officers and rogues all move interchangeably through the same landscape dissolves Carmen’s crucial outsider status and with it the transgressive frisson of her relationship with mummy’s boy manqué Don José.

Carmen’s problems don’t end there. French mezzo Virginie Verrez sings the role beautifully, balancing darkness of tone and lightness of delivery for a really idiomatic ‘Habanera’ and deliciously skittish ‘Seguidilla’. But while the music says assertive seductress, the action is something else entirely. More Grace Kelly than Grace Jones, handling both guns and men like she’s afraid they might go off in her hands, Verrez is a convent girl at a riot — something the tattoos and hoop earrings and the shot glasses she defiantly clinks in place of castanets only emphasise. I’ve seen more ferocity in a girls’ dormitory than in the opening cat-fight, more sensuality at a school disco.

Anita Watson sings sweetly as an unexpectedly bearable, forthright Micaela. There’s strong support from Harriet Eyley and Angela Simkin (Frasquita and Mercedes), and Joe Roche’s Remendado and Ross Ramgobin’s Morales both catch the ear. Dimitri Pittas’s Don José has all the notes and a certain brooding, hangdog truculence about him, but never fully settles. All the colour and energy that has been banished from the stage (with the exception of the superb children’s chorus) finds its home in the orchestra pit, where Tomas Hanus delivers propulsive brilliance and plenty of delicately shaded woodwind.

Kasper Holten’s Don Giovanni — his parting gift to the Royal Opera — has been a bit of a problem child since its 2014 première. Now returning for a musically mixed third revival, the production is no less maddening, not least because it still refuses to be pinned down.

This is a Giovanni written by the Don himself, a rapist’s revisionist telling. The names of his many conquests (lovingly catalogued by Leporello) are projected on to the blank façade of Es Devlin’s revolving set, ink runs and pools in suggestive blots over Anja Van Kragh’s handsome costumes, staining and marking women who all fling themselves at their seducer. Far from fleeing the Don at the start, we see Donna Anna actively pursuing him, later leading him away during Don Ottavio’s second aria for another round. Elvira’s furious slaps are swiftly followed by kisses, an infatuated Zerlina feigns affront while eagerly participating, and Elvira’s maid strips stark naked after no more seduction than eight bars of Giovanni’s serenade.

The world the production shows us is one of hypocrisy, cruelty and corruption. No one — not self-righteous Elvira, Anna and Ottavio with their prim, pious declarations of affection, nor even uncomplicated Masetto and Zerlina — is innocent. Only Giovanni himself, he would have us believe, is honest.

It’s a bleak argument, however interesting, and one that feels particularly ill judged against a backdrop of Weinsteins, Boycotts and Kavanaughs. The trouble is that the music tells us no such thing. The sincerity of ‘Verdrai carino’ or ‘Dalla sua pace’ chafes uncomfortably against the direction, leaving us with little to root for and still less reason to care.

Conducted by Hartmut Haenchen, whose speeds are as slow as the revolve is frenetic, this revival is musically mixed. Malin Bystrom returns as a radiant Donna Anna, the generosity and breadth of her tone a marked contrast to the rather pinched top of Myrto Papatanasiu’s Elvira. Louise Alder makes a ravishing house debut as Zerlina, and Daniel Behle floats Don Ottavio’s two arias with stylish ease. But Erwin Schrott’s Don is a destabilising force, pushing hard through ensembles, finding the character’s sardonic humour but none of his vulnerability.

Because even self-deception eventually collapses. A neat gesture in Holten’s original staging (removed here by revival director Jack Furness) scrapped the musical moralising of the opera’s closing sextet, instead leaving Giovanni alone under the house lights in a hell of dawning self-realisation. It was the only possible ending to a production that, while often a little queasy, had a clear case to make. The current compromise feels like a fig leaf after the orgy has ended.

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