Carmen, Glyndebourne

Still a very happening 'Carmen'
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Dirt and realism; heat and dust; soldiers and cigarette girls; sweat and sex. It was precisely those ingredients that drew Georges Bizet to Carmen. He loved Prosper Mérimée's novella. He'd have loved David McVicar's Glyndebourne staging. It's back in the repertoire again, its energy, its visual excitement redoubled. Michael Vale's terrific setting refreshes again those parts of Seville that the Spanish tourist board wouldn't want us to see: the scrag-end of town, cramped, overpopulated, claustrophobic; all rusting ironwork and crumbling stone. And its humming - that's the noise and the smell of soldiers and cigarette girls in close proximity. Spontaneous combustion.

Dirt and realism; heat and dust; soldiers and cigarette girls; sweat and sex. It was precisely those ingredients that drew Georges Bizet to Carmen. He loved Prosper Mérimée's novella. He'd have loved David McVicar's Glyndebourne staging. It's back in the repertoire again, its energy, its visual excitement redoubled. Michael Vale's terrific setting refreshes again those parts of Seville that the Spanish tourist board wouldn't want us to see: the scrag-end of town, cramped, overpopulated, claustrophobic; all rusting ironwork and crumbling stone. And its humming - that's the noise and the smell of soldiers and cigarette girls in close proximity. Spontaneous combustion.

This is as good a Carmen as you'll see anywhere. It's brash; it's noisy; it's happening. The naturalistic tempo of the narrative is astonishingly well conveyed, the action, the stage pictures full of revealing detail. In Act I, the entire community feels caged. In Act II, they let off steam in the smoky subterranean hideaway that is Lillas Pastia's tavern. The "Chanson bohème" - sexily choreographed by Andrew George - moves from sultry to seething in less time than it takes to crack open the next bottle of manzanilla. And then, breathtakingly, with Act III, McVicar and Vale clear the stage of all but mountain mist. Visually, this production is like a sustained metaphor for the freedom that Carmen so craves but finds only in death.

The new Carmen at Glyndebourne, Rinat Shaham, is a sensation. From the moment she slinks downstage, douses her head in the water barrel, and tosses it back in a spray of defiance, she has taken possession of the stage and everyone on it. I've never been one for note-perfect Carmens - this one uses the music like promises and threats, coaxing, cajoling, insinuating, bending the melody, shamelessly exploiting the chesty rasp of her bottom notes. The colour of the voice is just about as dusky as it gets, but it's the way that it is an extension of her body and soul and language - the vernacular - that really grabs you.

That's the triumph of McVicar's production: speech and song are indivisible. So often they feel like separate events. Everyone on stage, regardless of the quality of their French (generally very good), convinces you that they are natives. The dialogue really comes off the page.

Paul Charles Clarke's Don José plays the dialogue better than he sings it - it's not a beautiful sound, grainy and inclined to pinching at the top - but it's a hell of a performance. This José is truly a child in a grown-up world. Mummy's boy. Carmen is too much woman for him. You really feel for him in that final scene. He seems physically to diminish in size. The act of drawing the knife across Carmen's throat is almost as apologetic as it is accidental - like an unwelcome kiss.

The dashing Escamillo is, by contrast, enough man for Carmen and all her sisters. Wojtek Drabowicz doesn't exactly thrill with the singing, but his "Toreador Song" certainly tells the story. The only major disappointment here is the Michaëla of Michelle Canniccioni, vocally too wavery and unfocused for my taste. But even she belongs, and that's what good theatre is all about - an integrated ensemble in which everybody is a vital component of the storytelling. The chorus work here (including as raucous a bunch of street urchins as you'd care to meet) was first rate, as was the dynamism and beauty of the London Philharmonic under the spry, rhythmic baton of Paolo Carignani.

Bullfight day is an explosion of colour, with Sue Blane's costumes a real eyeful. And as the climax approaches, McVicar brilliantly choreographs one last coup, mirroring the confrontation of man and beast in and out of the bullring. Escamillo's triumph is Carmen's fate. She is the final sacrifice.

To 29 August (01273 813813; www.glyndebourne.com)

Comments