Carmen, Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin 1/3/2017 – Review

Published on on 2/3/17

Carmen, on at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from the 1st to the 5th of March, is produced by International Leisure and Arts which brings once more a large scale Russian company to Ireland, this time the Moscow State Opera.

Celine Byrne, as the only Irish singer, features in the role of Micaëla. There’s no doubt the Irish soprano’s name is the one that keeps drawing the crowds to this big theatre, which on the opening night was full. If you’ve never had the chance to listen to her wonderfully luscious voice, you will feel sorry that you are seeing her for the first time in Carmen (due to the very limited soprano role); but the flawlessly executed main character’s aria in the third act “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” is worth, alone, the price of the ticket.

The set design is strongly Picasso-themed: from the gigantic stage curtains made by panels reproducing Picasso’s posters for the Vallauris Exhibition in the ‘50s, to a big panel hanging for the whole first act representing the cover of the book by bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín “Picasso Toros Y Toreros”, to the paintings in final scene taking the whole background. Now, I understand Picasso was Spanish. And I do understand the paintings chosen all have bulls and bullfighters as a subject. But that’s where my understanding of the references ends. The strong visual anachronism of these modern artworks is not functional to the audience’s immersion in the story, which is set in the early nineteenth century, and it’s not that the Georgy Isaakyan’s direction transposes the action in the middle of the twentieth century; so the jarring juxtaposition remains, unexplained, serving no purpose other than that of an irrelevant, distracting decoration.

Even for a conservative audience, modernisation of popular operas can be a tolerable thing, or even welcome, if they add a layer of understanding or new meaning to the original story. We’ve seen very worthy examples of this in 2016 in Dublin, with The Barber of Seville by Wide Open Opera and with Don Giovanni by Opera Theatre Company; but these two productions carried an internal coherence that is instead lacking here.

As for the singing, mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Babintseva (playing Carmen) had an impressive voice, with the perfect sultry timbre and the broad range needed for the role; but very few moments in her performance were enlightened by the sparkle of authenticity: most of the time you could perceived a tiredness about her role, and you had a strong feeling that her soul was not on the stage with her voice. Her best moment was arguably in the duet with Don Jose towards the end of the first act (“Tout doux, Monsieur, tout doux.”).

Carmen is a very physical role, but here also you were let down by the lack of an appropriate direction, with the protagonist passively sitting down on a bench when you would have expected her standing or dancing. An example of this sort of out of synch direction is the start of the second act, at Lillas Pastias’ tavern: the start of her “Chanson bohème” should see Carmen at least standing, if not really dancing from the beginning of the song, like clearly indicated by the descriptive text in the libretto (“Elle se lève tout à coup et se met à chanter.”). An even more painful example is the final scene, a dramatic anticlimax between the overwhelming, quickly changing and distracting Picasso’s paintings in the background, the consequently dwarfing effect that these had on the couple’s impending tragedy and the staticity on stage of Babintzeva.

Only praise could instead be sung about the Armenian tenor playing Don José, Hovhannes Ayvazyan, whose voice had a distinctive lyrical tone and whose interpretation was heartfelt and convincing throughout. The famous aria “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” was truly moving and perfectly executed.

Noteworthy were also the smugglers and gypsies quintet in the second act and the “cards” trio in the third.

Alexey Dedov in the role of Escamillo could work on his French pronunciation.

The collective choral scenes were vocally incisive and satisfying, but visually perhaps less so: while it’s difficult to comment on the historical authenticity of the costumes’ colours, from a dramatic point of view the low saturation of the pastels wasn’t really in line with the strong tints of the story.
Overall, there were very good moments in the evening, worthy of world-class theatre; for future performances and productions, we only hope for more soul and passion being poured into this work by the director and some of the singers.

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