A packed house at the matinée would seem to suggest that the Royal Albert Hall is still the natural arena for Raymond Gubbay's opera. For Carmen, too. If there's a credible bullring in town, this has to be it. The director David Freeman, and his designer David Roger, fill it with bags of colour. Down and around Roger's snaking ramp they come, the soldiers, the cigarette girls, the smugglers. Bullfight day brings a gaudy procession, a carnival of death - skeletons and death-masks, acrobats and fire-eaters.
The audience is encouraged to get involved: children in the aisles begging for small change, vendors touting "sugared skulls" and "candied coffins". Freeman cleverly taps into the bloodlust of the spectacle, whipping up his spectators to the point where they are rhythmically clapping to the entrance of the toreadors.
It's the people's opera all right. And big is back for Gubbay, whose audience didn't buy into his small but not so perfectly formed Savoy Opera. It is the spectacle, the size, the hyped-up sound and fury that they're after. The Verona factor. And Gubbay delivers. Technically, his arena shows have got better. One still misses the impact and immediacy of real orchestral sound as opposed to booming bass-biased amplification. And voices are still apt to sound disembodied - except when in close proximity to where you happen to be sitting.
At this performance there was another problem. Some of the cast were cavalier about keeping a watchful eye on the monitors - their only visual contact with the conductor. Some of the ensemble was dodgy, to say the least.
But the real problem with this Carmen was not the spectacle, or the attention to detail, or indeed the fluency of Freeman's crowd control; it was the human drama at the heart of the opera. It just didn't fire. The principals - with one notable exception - simply weren't good enough or big enough, vocally or temperamentally, to command the space. The dialogue in Carmen is always a problem. Opera singers tend not to sing as they speak. When they sing they acquire airs. That's the main difference between opera and musicals - musical-theatre delivery is closer to the vernacular. So here, Carmen - Louise Poole covering for an indisposed Victoria Simmonds - and Don José - John Hudson - both hailed from the North of England. So it was Coronation Street in the dialogue and Pride and Prejudice in the singing. None of which would have been so bad if hadn't sounded as if they were reading from an auto-cue. And, let's face it, English doesn't insinuate its desires as sexily as French.
That aside, most of the singing was very average indeed. Louise Poole did well for a substitute - she has a good and ripe sound, and her manner is confident. But she was never dangerous enough, except in the negotiation of pitch, which I'm sorry to say was a real problem. And there was zero chemistry with Hudson's bear-like Don José in the Seguidilla of Act I.
Freeman, incidentally, really ups the ante on José by having him not just threaten but kill his Captain at the end of Act II. But that potential for recklessness was never reflected in Hudson's singing. Leigh Melrose was a passable Escamillo, more imposing of voice than stature, but the real star of the show was Natasha Marsh's Micaela. She conveyed both the vulnerability and spirit of a role that can amount to little more than just one show-stopping aria. She provided the best singing of the afternoon with that - not just in terms of technique but because the emotion of the aria really came from somewhere.
She alone seemed to be acting and behaving through her character. And to give the director, David Freeman, his due, the fault was not his. The climactic confrontations inside and out of the bullring were tellingly paralleled. But real passion and better singers were what this Carmen woefully lacked.
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