NZ Opera’s 2017 Carmen surprises, disconcerts and delights

New Zealand Opera presents:
BIZET – Carmen – Opera in Four Acts

Cast: Carmen – Nino Surguladze
Don Jose – Tom Randle
Escamillo – James Clayton
Micaëla – Emma Pearson
Zuniga – Wade Kernot
Moralès – James Harrison
Frasquita – Amelia Berry
Mercédès – Kristin Darragh
Le Remendado – James Benjamin Rodgers
Lillas Pastia – Stuart Coats

Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus
Orchestra Wellington
Francesco Pasqualetti (conductor)
Michael Vinten (chorus director)

Lindy Hume (director)
Jacqueline Coats (assistant director)
Dan Potra (designer)
Matthew Marshall (lighting)

St.James Theatre, Wellington
Thursday, Ist June, 2017

(other peformances: Tuesday 6th June 6:30pm,

Thursday 8th, Saturday 10th June 7:30pm)

There’s almost always a lot to like in any production of Carmen. On the face of things the opera has everything that any theatre-goer-cum-music-lover could wish for – like the Shakespearean character who says “four feasts are forward”, one can say Carmen has the four things which ensure operatic success – spectacle, drama, compelling characters and memorable tunes. Of course, these things don’t make or play themselves, and, despite this review’s opening assertion, I still shudder inwardly at the thought of the most depressing night I’ve ever spent at the opera, in 1994, at Covent Garden, of all places, witnessing a second-rate production of – you’ve guessed it! – Carmen.

Happily, Carmen was one of the New Zealand Opera’s great successes in the still-fledgling company’s 1960s years – opera company founder Donald Munro used to regale us in later times with stories of the Company’s first “Carmen”, the outrageously sexy English soprano Joyce Blackham, whose portrayal of the eponymous heroine was by all accounts extremely “up front and personal”, emphasising her own physical allure and the character’s flirtatiousness – she alone would have been a drawcard for the public, one would imagine.

Fifty-plus years onwards, and from the Wellington Opera House a few metres further down and across the road towards Courtenay Place, relocated at the St.James Theatre, the company presented its latest 21st Century version of Bizet’s out-and-out masterpiece. With a leading soprano from Georgia whose career trajectory listed all the “great” contemporary opera houses, a strong, mostly Australasian supporting cast, marvellous playing and direction from the pit, and a director and designer with interesting and strongly-wrought production ideas, this presentation simply couldn’t help but make a striking and resonant impression, very much on its own terms.

It began with what seemed like some kind of conceptual challenge, austere and confrontational, with the chorus arriving on stage before the opening Prelude began, and “eyeballing” the audience unflinchingly – the contrast between the music’s near-vertiginous energies and the disengaged demeanour of the figures was almost Brechtian in its sense of alienation. Director Lindy Hume had referred to gestures such as these in her director’s notes which the programme carried, while admitting the ideas stemmed directly to her very first production of Carmen for West Australian Opera, 25 years ago! – she explained that her thoughts concerning the opera at that time still seemed to her valid and applicable in broad terms, reflecting her pride in that particular production’s achievement.

That opening gesture set the mode for the first two acts, whose set pieces were treated in like manner, creating in places what Hume herself referred to an “almost surreal and unnatural style”, and setting them apart from the more naturalistic exchanges. As an idea in itself it was interesting and impressive, but for me it drained a lot of the dramatic life out of places in the work, as it stylised these sections almost to the point of inertia, and invariably didn’t match the musical flow of things. The opening soldiers’ chorus had nicely built-in indolence, but I thought the children’s chorus lacked real exuberance and dynamism, their “mock-execution” play with the soldiers too “stagey” and contrived, conveying insufficient spontaneity.

As for the “smoking” chorus, marking the entrance of the “cigarette girls” parading before the admiring glances of the young men, I felt the scene was choreographed to over-calculated effect, wrung dry of any of the sultry insinuation of aspect and manner suggested in the text’s utterances – “…. we will follow you, dark-haired cigarette girls, murmuring words of love in your ears” – and pared down to a kind of slow-motion synchronised walking exercise, viewed dispassionately by the women perched (I’m tempted to use the word “stranded”) on narrow steps and landings, who conveyed the visual impression that they’d seen it all before hundreds of times, and in any case vastly preferred their cigarettes!

Things took a long time to get going at Lillas Pastia’s, as well, with the opening instrumental strains of the Gypsy Song getting little or no stage response until Carmen herself took charge of things – up until then, a languour seemed to hang over the proceedings, a disinclination of the production, it seemed, to convey atmosphere and spontaneity in places that seemed to me to call for it most urgently. With the help of Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercédès, the stage action did eventually energise sufficiently to match with the orchestra – but it took a while! A turning-point was the arrival of Escamillo, the Toreador. His was no bloodless, over-stylised character – instead, a truly galvanising force!

Afterwards, the Quintet with the Smugglers rattled like a train over the points in an exhilarating fashion – indeed the whole Act seemed to energise itself with its sense of dramatic weight, from Escamillo’s entrance right to the end – a splendid three-way confrontation between two of Carmen’s prospective lovers and the Smugglers saw the ill-fated corporal Don Jose forced to desert the army against his better judgement, and join Carmen and her bevy of contrabandists on their adventures.

As for Acts Three and Four I found it far easier to assimilate the “stylistic” treatment of the various tableaux, such as the smugglers’ approach to their hideout at Act Three’s beginning – black landform shapes morphing slowly into moving figures, betrayed by an occasional glint of forward movement, the “word made flesh” marriage of action and music superbly realised. Only the transition between the last two Acts, with Carmen left lying on the floor in the wake of an altercation with Don Jose seemed to me to lose some dramatic momentum, leaving we in the audience uncertain of a response as the set numbers clicked over. Fortunately, the remainder of that final Act pulled out all the visceral and dramatic stops, even if poor Escamillo never got to show off his glittering Toreador’s costume!

The production, despite the early-on stage action’s stop-start trajectories, maintained plenty of on-going atmosphere by dint of its imposing settings and evocative lighting. With the costumes we found ourselves mingling with ordinary Seville citizens and its soldiery, with the exception of Escamillo, who was something of a swell in his elegant gentleman’s garb. But from the start here was the proverbial Spanish glare of day throughout the opening scene, gradually giving way throughout Lillas Pastia’s to the all-enfolding darkness, which reached its apogee at the Third Act’s beginning, and its antithesis with the explosions of colour among the crowd at the bullfight scene, before returning us to that pitiless opening light at the opera’s end.

Central to the atmospheric charge of the presentation was the brilliant, rich and evocative backdrop of sound recreated by the playing of Orchestra Wellington under its Music Director Francesco Pasqualetti – both in the numerous instrumental detailings (the horn-playing deserved special mention, as did the various characterful wind solos) and the power and colour-suffused textures of the full orchestral passages, full justice was, I thought, done to the composer’s miraculous scoring. And how supple and sonorous was the chorus’s singing throughout! – the aforementioned languour of the soldiers, the vocal ardour of the young men and the sensual insouciance of the young women factory workers in their “C’est fumee” utterances – then the infectious vigour of both the smugglers in their descriptions of the hapless customs-men, and the rip-roaring excitement of the bull-ring crowds – again, the figures up-front and confrontational, but this time abandoning their emotions to the music, to overwhelming effect!

So to the figures towards whom all of these different elements were directed – the cast of characters! – this was a strong, if interestingly constituted ensemble, the “odd one out” for me being the unfortunate soldier Don Jose, here played with an unrelieved sort of tortured awkwardness throughout, rather like a French Wozzeck, by American tenor Tom Randle. I admit to finding it difficult to understand how such an overtly dysfunctional personality as depicted by Randle would have had any appeal for the character of Carmen – but there was no doubting the disturbing undercurrents and frighteningly insistence of this Don Jose, a besotted individual completely out of his emotional depth with the new-found object of his desire. Randle’s voice, though used most intelligently, was notable more for its raw power than any honeyed tones, except in the couple of places during the “Flower Song” when he sang phrases quietly and affectingly.

Playing opposite him as Carmen was the magnetic Georgian-born soprano Nino Surguladze. Though somewhat cramped by the staging for her very first entry, she was a liquid, mercurial and volatile presence throughout, making the most of the “Habanera”and its detailings with her easeful spontaneity and ready (though never over-modulated) physical allure. Only what I thought was some unnecessary, protracted business with handcuffs at the expense of the commanding regiment officer Zuniga detracted from her sultry, disarming focus. For the rest she was magnificent, even with her back turned towards the audience when first held captive by Don Jose, after the skirmish among the factory girls – her playful seductiveness throughout the Seguidilla completely ensnared her hapless captor, whose doom was sealed from that moment.

So it was in exalted terms for the rest of the drama – Carmen’s initial infatuation and subsequent disenchantment with Don Jose, her playful and resonant encounter with the celebrated Escamillo, her darkly-modulated acceptance of her eventual fate during the fortune-cards scene, and the final, defiant and destructive encounter with Don Jose at the end. Surguladze obviously shared and fully participated in director Lindy Hume’s vision of the heroine as a woman who believes utterly in herself and her values, even in the face of death.

Though she was Carmen’s opposite in diametric ways, Don Jose’s would-be sweetheart from his own village, Micaëla, was here portrayed with admirable character and fortitude by a sweet-toned Emma Pearson, whom I remembered most warmly as an affecting Gilda, from a NZ Opera Rigoletto some years before. She similarly melted our hearts here with her touching rendition of “Et tu lui diras que sa mere” (You’ll tell him that his mother..) from her Act One duet with Don Jose (one of Bizet’s most affecting melodies), and, later in the work, her heart-in-mouth “Je dis, que rien ne m’epouvante” (I say, that nothing frightens me) when looking for Don Jose at the smugglers’ mountain hideout.

Completing the quartet of would-be-lovers was the Toreador, Escamillo, played and sung with predictable verve and compelling vocal authority by James Clayton, who, somewhat surprisingly, as I’ve said, never got to impress the punters in his Toreador get-up (usually a feature of the last few moments of the work when he bursts onto the scene of Carmen’s murder by Don Jose, too late to save her). Along with great self-assuredness, Clayton refreshingly brought out a good deal of the character’s suave, debonair and charming aspect, a change from the sometimes excessive arrogance and macho pride by singers wanting to impress and nothing much else.

The lesser parts were given with all the apparent surety and confidence of those in the leading roles, all New Zealand singers (one feels certain there could, for New Zealand Opera, one day be another New Zealand Carmen)……..Don Jose’s commanding officer, Zuniga, was played imposingly by Wade Kermot, his voice and aspect conveying great authority when in control of the barracks, and face-saving dignity when put in a compromising position at Lillas Pastia’s by the smugglers. James Harrison doubled the roles of Morales, the cool-as-cucumber soldier who first notices the arrival of Micaëla at the barracks, looking for Don Jose; and of the smuggler Le Dancaire, the latter portrayal set alongside that of James Benjamin Rodgers as Le Remendado, the two men a force to be reckoned with as gun-toting contrabandists. They were more-than-likely the partners in the story of the two women, Frasquita (played by Amelia Berry) and Mercédès (played by Kristin Darragh), the pair becoming the smugglers’ secret weapon in the latters’ dealings with the customs officers.

The two women did a splendid job in various contexts, supporting Carmen in the Act Two Gypsy Dance, and the smugglers in the Quintet Nous avons en tete une affaire (We have a scheme in mind), but most tellingly in the famous “Card Scene” Trio, Melons! Coupons! during which Carmen foretells her own death. Amelia Berry’s Frasquita was brighter-toned than Kristen Darragh’s darker, more powerful Mercédès, the two intertwining their voices to perfection in the lively interplay that framed Carmen’s grimmer soliloquy.

With all of its idiosyncrasies and compulsions, the production certainly created a distinctive and memorable compendium of impressions, which I thought gathered force and consistency as it progressed. Even if one takes issue with certain aspects, what can’t be denied is the conviction with which the individual roles were brought to life, and with which the drama as a whole was presented. For my money there was a very great deal to like and to admire, and, by the end of the show, to find convincing and satisfying.

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