So there’s this gypsy, Carmen, all smoking like a trooper and legs akimbo looking like she’s stepped out of a Russell Flint. Sultry, available. Then there’s this lad from the country, Don José, who’s joined the army but is still a bit of a mummy’s boy, and being an innocent is easy meat for the experienced beauty. He’s just about to go home and marry the nice girl from the village, Micaëla, who has just brought a letter from doting mummy suggesting he does just that, when the aforementioned hoyden starts to sing about love and thoroughly turns the head of the young soldier. Well it ends badly.
Carmen gets into a fight with one of the other working girls at the tobacco factory and attempts to give her a Glasgow smile then ends up being bound over to face trial. After another seductive song (the seguidilla) she persuades the poor sap to let her go. This lands him in jail. When he gets out, having learned nothing, but now afire with passion he allows himself to be persuaded to join the gypsies in a life of freedom and smuggling. However Carmen has been losing interest and her affections become attached to the glamorous, Escamillo, a toreador who invites the desperadoes to watch him fight a bull in Seville. José gets all clingy and doesn’t know that when love has gone it cannot be talked back. He ends up doing her in.
It is the fate of all ground-breaking works that their effect on subsequent audiences can never quite be the same as for those who experienced the thrill of seeing something new which escapes the conventions of the time. So the step towards realism which to us seems tame and almost comical when not actually melodramatic can no longer be a feature of the pleasure a work such as Carmen gives us today. On the other hand a good tune is and will always be a good tune and Carmen is stuffed full of them. A more jaunty and seductive score would be hard to find.
The Welsh National Opera under (last night) James Southall gets everything out of the opera that a modern audience could want. For such a large touring orchestra it is exceptionally light on its feet, from the delicacy of the Seguidilla to the triumphalism of the March of the Torreadors. Alessandra Volpe, in spite of (perhaps because of) her evident pregnancy oozed a voluptuousness which coloured her arias. At the same time she was clearly the match for any man in strength of will. Peter Wedd as Don José was suitably wide-eyed and tortured, but with a depth of feeling and control evident in the ‘flower song’ in which he expresses his love. Jessica Muirehead as Micaëla brought a purity of voice and characterization which balanced well against Ms Volpe. ★★★★☆ Graham Wyles 14/11/14