George Bizet’s tuneful and dramatic opera Carmen is surely one of the most accessible in the repertoire. It has all the excitement and effusive melodies to be an instant crowd pleaser, whilst also providing enough musical substance for the more serious connoisseur. It was a shame then that Ellen Kent’s rendition fell so flat at the New Theatre. Despite Kent’s reputation for bringing showbiz glamour and quirky innovation to the operatic tradition, it would be difficult to imagine a more pallid interpretation of Carmen than this. Although there were some strong individual performances, the sum of this production’s parts was a lacklustre dilution of Bizet’s extraordinary Spanish exoticism.
It would be churlish not to recognise that there were some very well-delivered moments from some of the senior members of the cast. Liza Kadelnik was a beguiling and powerful Carmen, who commanded the attention of audience and chorus alike in every scene she appeared in. A particular highlight was her sultry and seductive ‘seguidilla’, but more generally her vocals were strong and she was one of the few cast-members who inhabited their role from an acting perspective. Maria Tonina played the perfect counterpoint to Kadelnik, presenting an innocent and pure Micaëla whose voice soared in her aria ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante.’
From the male characters the strongest was surely Ruslan Zinevych as the protagonist Don Jose, a soldier who is doomed by his fatal attraction to Carmen. If you listened to a recording of his aria ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,’ you would have been justified in assuming that his was the voice of a household name. Unfortunately some chronically stiff acting, particularly in the pivotal closing scenes, lessened the impact of a voice suffused with power and pathos.
In fact, Zinevych’s weakness could be applied to the majority of the cast. The modern adage that to be a star operatic performer you must combine immaculate vocals with a genuine ability to act (so brilliantly epitomised in the work of Jonas Kaufmann) seems not to have penetrated the psyche of Ellen Kent’s company. At their best, the great set-pieces of Bizet’s opera are a whirlwind of colour and energy. In this performance they were a mess. The chorus admittedly mustered a great sound, but they were painfully immobile and laboured. Scenes featuring dance or fighting bordered on the farcical, whilst the usually iconic ‘Toreador Song’ felt more like a rehearsed reading than a full-blown spectacle.
In this scene the performers were not helped by the orchestra, who produced a meek rendition devoid of colour and dynamic interest. For much of the rest of the performance Vasyl Vasylenko’s ensemble were competent if a little subdued. Some consistently wayward intonation from the trombones removed some of the gloss, and on several occasions in the first two acts the cast were hampered by the violin section’s tendency to rush. Maybe, like some in the audience, these musicians also wanted the end to come sooner than it did.
The flaws in this production can perhaps be explained with a glance at the marketing for this performance. Looming large on the brochure and posters towered “Caspian the Andalucían stallion,” a horse with a long-standing connection to Ellen Kent Productions. Caspian’s appearance at the beginning of Act 4 can best be described as grotesque tokenism. With characteristic lack of energy he was led redundantly across the stage, roused into a series of limp gestures and leaps. It is testament to the façade and lack of commitment in this performance that the director believed they could get away with a chorus that didn’t act so long as they gave the audience twenty seconds of a dancing horse.
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