The world’s most popular opera feels fresh and vibrant, but free from gimmickry, under Cecilia Stinton’s direction with Lee Reynolds doing excellent work with City of London Sinfonia in the pit.
Staging anything coherently is a challenge on Opera Holland Park’s enormous, very wide stage. You have to allow extra bars to get people on and off because they have to travel so far. For this production the playing space is almost doubled (design by takis) with a sloping semi-circular thrust stage so that the orchestra is effectively encircled by the action. It adds still further to the logistic challenge but it works well and makes some of the action – especially the final scene – feel intimately immersive.
Kezia Bienek is terrific as Carmen. She sings with effortless panache and finds all the right assertive, sassy, flirtatiousness while always remaining her own woman. It’s a warmly convincing performance with, among many other fine moments, a deliciously sexy Habenera (lovely balance with the cello at the beginning).
Oliver Johnston more than matches her as the hapless, love-smitten, ultimately abusive Don José, His tenor voice is magnificent and the love aria he sings to Carmen in the tavern is beautifully, mellifluously lyrical. And yet he brings coarse, fierce passion to the final scene.
Alison Langer’s troubled frumpy Micaela is a fine foil to Carmen and her claret-rich voice delights especially in the resonant bottom notes. And Thomas Mole gets – and makes real drama out of – what is, I gather, the most widely recognised music theatre tune in the world. So somehow he has to make the Toreador song feel newly minted and he does – as his flamboyant, exhibitionist character shows off and captivates Carmen.
Lee Reynolds has slightly reduced the score but the omissions don’t show. He is a very clear conductor – mouthing every word with the singers, beaming in delight at the end of the glorious accelerando number with castanets and pizzicato strings. He allows a lot of detail to shine through. Like most people, I’ve known this music all my life but there’s a sparky horn line in the Toreador song I’d never noticed before. Once or twice he lost control of the male chorus which slipped out of synch for a few bars at the performance I saw but the juggernaut soon got back on track so it didn’t matter much.
The children’s chorus – arranged through Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School – fizzes with energy and sings with conviction. It’s good to see community involvement at this level.