A su­perb ‘Car­men’

Malta Independent - - STAGE - Ce­cilia Xuereb

A last-minute change of singer for the ti­tle-role of the opera Car­men by Bizet at the Aurora The­atre in Gozo brought in mezzo-so­prano Ok­sana Volkova from the Bol­shoi The­atre in Moscow. Rather than a draw­back this might have been the best thing that could have hap­pened to this pro­duc­tion for it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a bet­ter Car­men than Volkova. This singer has it all: she has a beau­ti­ful well-trained ex­pres­sive voice that she can modulate at will, she has spirit and she can act.

The opera, with its ex­cel­lent li­bretto by Meil­hac and Halevy, has el­e­ments of the re­al­ism that had just come into fash­ion at the time of its com­po­si­tion. But un­der­neath this re­al­ism is an archty­pal am­biva­lence. The pro­tag­o­nist pos­sesses at the same time both se­duc­tive­ness and de­struc­tive­ness. She is dan­ger­ous to any man, but she is also dan­ger­ous to her­self. She steals the first scene with her taunt­ing Ha­banera. At this point of the story Don José thinks him­self im­mune, but he is nev­er­the­less dis­turbed enough to take her for a witch. By Act II he is thor­oughly be­sot­ted and com­pro­mised and his only refuge is in the moun­tains with the gypsy band. In a haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful and tense scene that con­cludes the act the cards fore­tell Car­men’s death and she, with a quite gen­uine self­knowl­edge ac­cepts it as some­how built into the very struc­ture of her char­ac­ter. From this point on­wards the au­di­ence ac­cepts her in the knowl­edge that she can­not help her­self. Her great­ness lies in her will­ing­ness to be Car­men. For this rea­son I did not quite agree with the artis­tic direc­tor’s de­ci­sion to make her wear black for her fi­nal scene rather than the tra­di­tional bright colours, more of­ten than not red. Car­men is no tragic hero­ine: she dies free and un­van­quished. The real tragedy is Don José’s who finds him­self alone bereft of all that he had held dear – ca­reer, love and fam­ily and even his own dig­nity to the point of be­com­ing a mur­derer. José’s tragedy was em­pha­sised in the pro­duc­tion by having the fi­nale played on a bare stage with just Don José mourning his own fate over the life­less body of Car­men.

Un­like the other ma­jor charc­ters in the opera, Car­men has no scene to her­self: she shares all her ma­jor scenes with other char­ac­ters and with the cho­rus. This Car­men, how­ever needed no show-stop­per in that sense. Al­though the prin­ci­pals in this pro­duc­tion were strong they stood lit­tle chance next to her and without in any way try­ing to up­stage any of them she out­shone them all. Only in the beau­ti­ful quin­tet in Act II was there a feel­ing of real co­he­sion be­tween the singers. So­prano Mad­ina Kar­beli as Frasquita, mezzo Lara Rotil as Mer­cédès, tenor Ed­uardo San­ta­maria Al­varez es El Dan­caire and bari­tone Gabriele Ribis as El Re­men­dado played and sang beau­ti­fully off one an­other and off Volkova.

Tenor Roberto de Bi­a­sio as Don José after some weak­ness in the open­ing scene sang with his fine lyri­cal voice and gave a strong per­for­mance with a par­tic­u­larly beau­ti­fully moulded flower aria in Act II show­ing the vo­cal po­ten­tial of this singer.

Bari­tone Marcin Bronikowki, in the role of Es­camillo, was no ro­man­tic Span­ish bull-fighter. In spite of his be­ing made to mount a kind of stage upon the stage his en­trance in Act II made no im­pact. His singing was good but he re­mained a rather shad­owy char­ac­ter. More im­pres­sive, though in a less im­por­tant role, was so­prano Gi­u­liana Gian­fal­doni, in the part of the faith­ful Micäela, Car­men’s op­po­site num­ber, one of the per­sons that Don José has lost and be­hind whom looms in the opera, the ma­gen­tic in­flu­ence of José’s mother.

Artis­tic direc­tor Novella Ta­bili has once again suc­ceeded in in­cor­po­rat­ing in­no­va­tive el­e­ments within the more tra­di­tional stag­ing so beloved of our au­di­ences. Screens with the­matic painted el­e­ments – such as the beau­ti­ful Pi­casso bull of the first act − in­tro­duced the ac­tion of each of the four acts while the short dance se­quences that ac­com­pa­nied the in­tro­duc­tory mu­sic picked the mood of the re­spec­tive acts. By the be­gin­ning of the third act, how­ever, this ploy started to be­come gim­micky and felt rather out of place at the be­gin­ning of the fourth act. In Act IV de­scrib­ing the pa­rade that pre­ceded the bull-fight rather than pre­sent­ing it in full colour economised on space and elim­i­nated un­nec­es­sary panoply while pre­par­ing us for the iso­la­tion of Don José at the end. The cho­rus, which was in no way out­stand­ing, par­tic­u­larly in the male sec­tion, tended to be kept static leav­ing the ac­tion in the hands of the prin­ci­pals and the ex­tras.

Con­duc­tor Colin At­tard was in good con­trol of the Malta Phil­har­monic Orches­tra cap­tur­ing from the very out­set the var­i­ous moods of the opera. The open­ing mu­sic had a spirit that re­flected the en­thu­si­asm of the con­duc­tor for all he di­rects. This is an opera in which the or­ches­tral score is as im­por­tant as the vo­cal score with mo­ments when it is the voices that seem to be ac­com­pa­ny­ing the orches­tra rather than the other way round. One could not but note the beau­ti­ful play­ing of the flute and the harp (Re­becca hall and Brit Arend) at the be­gin­ning of Act III and by the clos­ing act the or­ches­tral tem­per­a­ture was high though not un­feel­ingly so – this was not the hard and glar­ing in­ten­sity of a Span­ish sun and a Span­ish bull­fight. As the artis­tic direc­tor pointed out in her note in the printed pro­gramme that ac­com­pa­nied the pro­duc­tion the set­ting is a spir­i­tual lo­ca­tion rather than a ge­o­graph­i­cal one – this is Spain as imag­ined by a 19th cen­tury French­man.

This was in­deed one of the most en­joy­able opera pro­duc­tions to date.

Photo: Pix by P

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