Carmen, Wilton's Music Hall, London; <br></br>Don Giovanni, London Coliseum

These factory hands set the evening alight
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The Independent Culture

Wilton's Music Hall ­ a salvage merchant's treasure palace of battered and beautiful architectural detail ­ was full to bursting with a chattering audience high on excitement and Chenin Blanc. It wasn't your average first-night opera audience ­ there were no hang-ups over which were the "correct" places to applaud and none of the glares and hissy fits that usually accompany a novice listener's innocent enthusiasm ­ but this wasn't your average production. In a country where an opera company that was even 20 per cent black would make the headlines, we were watching a cast that was 80 per cent black and 100 per cent South African.

Broomhill Opera and the Spier Festival's tightly budgeted, abridged Carmen may not meet the production standards of most British opera companies but it does bring a fresh vitality to Bizet's familiar score. Conductor Charles Hazlewood and the excellent Old Mahogany Band propel the drama at exhilarating speed. And although director Mark Dornford-May's vaguely contemporary take has its problems (I don't quite buy the transvestites at the smugglers' hideout), he builds a strong sense of impending tragedy through careful characterisation of the central figures.

Pauline Malefane (Carmen) will not, I think, go on to be a great mezzo, but some spine-tingling top notes show signs of a great soprano in the making, and she is a compelling Carmen. Forget the technical concerns: Malefane ­ a walking antidote to the neo-Twiggies of the fashion spreads ­ reveals the fractures in Carmen's soul. She moves like a goddess and sings like a night-club chanteuse, but watches her effect on men with the frightened eyes of a lost child. Her Don José (Luzuko Mahlaba) is similarly caught in perpetual childhood, forever trying to leave his mother (and her envoy Micaela) and forever failing.

The most technically secure of the cast, Mahlaba is a promising tenor with a rich tone. He moves slowly, falls in love awkwardly, and murders his lover with the utter bewilderment of a man who cannot square the opposing demands of propriety and passion. It's a powerful portrayal that shows there is more to bind Carmen and Don José than sexual obsession.

With leads like these, the secondary roles are backgrounded, though Sibulele Mjali ­ who stepped in as Escamillo at 24 hours' notice ­ gave a first-night performance of great warmth. Pauline Du Plessis also gives a good account of the hopelessly unsexy Micaela (here a born-again Christian back-packer) with a voice of simple sweetness. But Malefane and Mahlaba aside, this Carmen belongs to the chorus. Their voices may not be as primped and preened as that of a European opera house, but what they lack in the way of experience is more than compensated for by their thrilling sound.

Make no mistake, the Spier Festival Company has more to offer than novelty. Put aside any qualms over the irony of the many unemployed British-born black singers for a short moment (would our own beleagured multi-cultural company Pegasus Opera attract such an audience?) and go and see it.

Calixto Bieito's production of Don Giovanni at ENO made the news last week with record readings on the boo-ometer. Splenetic similes bubbled up in the rush for critical condemnation, with one commentator even comparing Bieito's trash-strewn set to a Chapman Brothers work. (Er, shouldn't that be Tomoko Takahashi?).

Thankfully, Donna Anna's aside, there were no stretched pussies in Don Giovanni, let alone amputees or penis-nosed mannequins, but I get the point. I was shocked too. Not by the drugs. Or the sex. Or the violence. Or the peeing. I was shocked by the fact that a production that had been so conciously hyped as SHOCKING contained no nudity or Nazis. Something of a first for modern opera, no?

More seriously, although this coke-fuelled fellatio-fest cannot be counted as a success, it's worth examining the reasons why. Personally speaking I have no problem with Don Giovanni being portrayed as a psychotic monster. A straightforward serial shagger is not going to cut the mustard these days; everyone knows at least one, and though you may not like them, you're more likely to feel pity than contempt 20 years in to the Aids era.

So, make the Don horrific; make him violent, make him crude, have him piss, shag, wank, snort coke, commit oral rape, knock back the tequila, trample on people and rub his semen in his servant's hair. Why not? Think of Casino, The Sopranos, and American Tabloid. Think of the date-raping sons of commercial dynasties. Think of mobsters, libidinous presidents and sexually harrassing judges.

Is Bieito's Don unbelievable? No. But it is unbelievable that he'd get away with it for even two hours and 40 minutes without real power. He can't just be scum. He has to be scum with social clout, and this we do not see.

The principal problem with Bieito's production is that it is the work of a man with cinematic ideals but scant attention to authenticity and detail. If a scene is problematic, he'll exchange a coffin for a cadillac boot. If an attempted rape is not what he wants, he'll turn it into a consensual quickie. Opera as cinema can be done ­ just think of Leonhoff's Hitchcockian Boulevard Solitude ­ but not without an obsessive attention to detail and a very good movement coach.

Bieito's self-declared models are Almodovar and Scorsese ­ hence the car boot ­ but in live opera there is no editing. If the dancing is dreadful (it is, although go to any suburban Spanish nightclub and you'll see the ugliest of dancers made beautiful when they move), you cannot alter the camera angle. If the acting is poor (and, with the exception of Garry Magee's superb Don and Nathan Berg's quasi-Gary Oldman Leporello, it is) there is no means of cutting to the stronger performers. Consequently, the one scene that really hits home is a simple close-up on the Don as he sings his hopeless, sarcastic serenade into a telephone in the deserted, trashed-up bar (also the only scene where class structure is immaterial).

This isn't a problem of concept. It's a problem of execution. And let's face it ­ had conductor Joseph Swensen and the rest of ENO's cast been as musically adept as those of Graham Vick's conceptually confused Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne last year, the cries of condemnation would have been considerably quieter.

'Carmen': Wilton's Music Hall, E1 (020 7420 0222), to 29 June; 'Don Giovanni': Coliseum, WC2 (020 7632 8300), to 6 July

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