You've heard of double casting, but two Carmens in the first 80 minutes of Bizet's opera must be a record. There they were, though: Claire Bradshaw went sick the moment she escaped from her arrest, and Imelda Drumm showed up for the café scene as though she'd been singing the role all week. Which she had, in a way. Raymond Gubbay's in-the-round production is on every day and all the main roles are shared out. It's meant to preserve voices, but it does come in handy for a crisis.
There are two Carmens, too, according to the stage director, David Freeman. One is a conventional showpiece full of exotic Spanish images, the other is a probing study of obsessive and destructive love. That is the way he succeeds in putting it across in a staging that makes a sometimes complacent, mostly engrossing impact. Whatever the problems of arena-sized opera – and unless you are sniffy about amplification they are mostly to do with keeping singers and orchestra together – this team is now experienced enough at the Royal Albert Hall to deliver with flair and slickness.
It's in the nature of these shows that you get lots of bustle and spectacle in the supposedly routine bits. Freeman's crowds were typically a mix of real individuals. The riot in the cigar factory (a new take on Bizet's cigarettes in this 1920s update) spread with believable speed from a single confrontation, even if it didn't exactly reach the level of threat to justify calling in the army. Best of all was the long build-up to the bullfight, using the full size of David Roger's winding two-level set to deploy acrobats, intrusive sales people, children in dance-of-death masks, and five towering bull's heads, until the fighters and the crowds gathered in the middle while Carmen's own death ritual took place around and above them.
Here the intensity level rose sharply, as it had every time Carmen got together with José. If the chemistry was tentative in the first act, Drumm's presentation of assertive sexuality reacted compellingly with the unstable, violent streak that Antoni Garfield Henry found in José, a well-born country lad, ill at ease in the inner city. Henry was the pick of the cast vocally, with bright, fluent phrasing rising easily to the quiet high notes. Both Carmens were rather heavier-voiced and boldly projected, with Drumm powerful to the last.
Rosalind Sutherland sang an affecting aria as Micaëla. David Stephenson enjoyed the robustness of Escamillo's music, though he had to convey the usual misconception of a matador's character – aren't they usually small, wiry and desperate? It's a shame, too, that Freeman didn't find more than tired exoticism in the café and smugglers' scenes; he could surely reveal as much human interest as he does when he's interested, as with the rowdy kids who went begging around the press seats.
But this is as well-sung a Carmen as you'll hear outside the most expensive international houses, and better acted than you'll see inside them. All credit to the conductor, Peter Robinson, for not letting the ensemble slip more often than it did – he did an impressive rescue job when the children's chorus got ahead. The chorus blended well and Bobby Aitken's amplification worked subtly enough to keep the BBC Concert Orchestra in good balance, flattering the strength of the violins while showing off some idiomatic woodwind.
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