Does physical beauty and appearance of the singers count in staged opera? I feel that’s a sort of taboo question for an opera lover, but that’s exactly the question raised by the Ellen Kent’s ‘Carmen’ I saw at the Cork Opera House on the 22nd of April last. Having first approached opera by listening to classic recordings rather than watching staged productions, I always thought that voice is the absolute king, and costumes and settings a necessary decoration, but still a mere appendix to the substance. Talking about the actual appearance of the singers looked almost like a blasphemy, like a totally irrelevant part of the alchemic equation that creates the magic of opera. This may still hold true for many operas, where the focus is not on the physicality of the character; but definitely not, at least, for ‘Carmen’.
Liza Kadelnik was an absolutely perfect and credible Carmen. When she first appears on the scene you do, in all honesty, heave a sigh of relief: you will not have to tire your imagination for two and a half hours trying to match a less than credible performer with the seductress gipsy: she is beautiful. But the second, bigger sigh of relief comes when she starts singing, dispelling the even bigger fear that she was mainly cast for her looks: Kadelnik has an utterly respectable, velvety and deep mezzo-soprano voice, which I feel would not be out of place in any theatre in the world. Finally, her acting on stage is not second to her looks nor to her voice. She is the show for the whole night, and definitely one to watch for the future.
Ellen Kent directs a very classic version of Carmen: the scene is set in the main square in Seville and the set hardly changes throughout the four acts; the costumes are pretty classic as well and what it is part of the acquired imagery of this opera, with the cigarières wearing red flowers in their hair etc. Apart from Kadelnik’s performance, other noteworthy parts were the strength of coral scenes and the baritone Valeriu Cojocaru in the role of Zuniga.
I believe we can look at this show in two ways: we can be snobs and point at the inhomogeneous performance of some of the singers, or to the somewhat less than engaging orchestra execution; or we can choose to look at the good things in it and give a rating to the overall experience of the evening. Yes, this was not La Scala and some voices were less than memorable ones; but we’re in Ireland and we don’t get to see staged opera that often (let alone in an Opera House…!), so let’s put it this way: this version was good enough to give an introduction to untrained ears and opera neophyte, and it was good enough for the starved opera fans in Ireland. This was indeed an enjoyable evening of entertainment; not for the perfectionists in the audience, nor for the professional critics; but decent entertainment for the masses. Wait a minute, wasn’t opera in the past directed exactly at the masses (at least in its native countries)? And isn’t opera major struggle today to try and revert this trend of a perceived elitist form of art and tell the people in the streets that hey, opera is for you, opera is about love and passion and all the spectrum of human emotions, you can sing along, this is about you…
So, if Ellen Kent is bringing opera to every little corner of the UK and Ireland, even with some faults, well, maybe we should only be thankful for the service she’s giving to the preservation of this art. If you love opera in its core essence of captivating entertainment and of an eternal story told in beautiful music and singing, do yourself a favour and go see this Carmen by Ellen Kent next time is around (and leave your harsh critic self at home!).