As one of the world’s most well-known operas, it is strange to think that Carmen was so underappreciated in its day; Bizet sadly passed away before witnessing the true magnitude of his most famous work. Yet even after over 140 years since its inception, Carmen still remains one of the most recognisable compositions of its field, drawing the public in to pack out such expansive spaces as the Royal Opera House where the production has been given renewed life by director Francesca Zambello. Now in its fifth revival, Zambello first brought this fiery production to the stage in 2006 and each revival has been met with rapturous applause and wide-eyed wonderment. Not one to cause a stir, this revival is similarly well received.
Carmen tells of the life and love affairs of the eponymous heroine (Elena Maximova) whose fiery personality and seductive voice serve to bring many a man to heel under her spell. Even corporal Don José (Bryan Hymel), despite his best intentions to remain pure of heart for his innocent bride-to-be Micaëla (Nicole Car), succumbs to her intoxicating advances. But Carmen is not one to be tied down so easily. As part of a family of travelling gypsies, she values her freedom too highly to love just one man; something Don José finds to his dismay when bullfighter Escamillo (Alexander Vinogradov) appears looking to win her heart as well.
Everything about this production is pleasing, but not exceptional. Tanya McCallin’s set is evocative of the idyllic Mediterranean lifestyle – burnt orange buildings and courtyards give the relaxed, slow-paced atmosphere of a small town where nothing extraordinary happens. Simple and effective, it nevertheless doesn’t quite work against the fire of Carmen’s spirit or the sensuality of her ‘Habanera’; “L’amour est un oiseau ribelle, que nul ne peut apprivoiser” sums up her inability to be caged by any man. Maximova herself delivers a performance that will divide opinion. Her vocal is guttural and thick – she purposefully stops the sound from fully projecting, which initially muffles her enunciation buts adds depth to the vocal and is in keeping with her character. In this case it works, but nevertheless is a risky move. Escamillo (Vinogradov) attempts a similar tactic with less success – the melisma simply causes his words to slur and he loses volume as a result.
By contrast, Car delivers a much more traditional soprano vocal. With a purer tone, she represents a suitable contrast to Carmen in Don José’s dilemma and gets the applause of the night with her top quality vocal control during her aria in Act Three. The lover himself is another of the more traditional performances in this production; Hymel’s vocal is well controlled in most of the top notes and complements both love interests equally well in their respective duets. Hymel however often has projection issues in his lower register and so is gifted in some ways with so many high notes, safe ground that he can return to and guarantee applause every time. Of the supporting performers, the pairing of Michèle Losier and Vlada Borovko as Carmen’s gypsy friends must be praised – feisty and in sync with each other, these two are a welcome addition to each of the scenes they play a role in.
So whilst a very successful production, it seems more likely that the curtain calls and the well-deserved applause are in the main delivered for the wonderment of Bizet’s composition itself rather than for this particular version. Not to detract from the singers or the orchestra (who all give a laudable performance) but, when faced with some of the most well-known operatic songs ever composed, it is almost inevitable that the reality won’t stack up to expectation.
Carmen is playing the Royal Opera House until 30 November 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo by Catherine Ashmore