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Local Opera: Ellen Kent's Carmen

Review by Betty Yan - Ellen Kent - New Theatre, Oxford - 16 Apr 2022

There is nothing more exciting than watching one of the most famous opera shows in the glorious theatre with beautifully crafted production. Premiered on the stage in March 1875, Carmen still shines glamorously in this spring at Oxford after 147 years. The night of April 16th saw New Theatre at Oxford welcoming the renowned Carmen by the award-winning Ellen Kent Production.

 

Featuring a "hot-blooded" story of love, lust, jealousy and bravery, Carmen tells a tale of a beautiful charming and sexually attractive Gypsy girl named Carmencita (Irina Sproglis) who gets entangled with a Corporal, Don José (Sorin Lupu), in a relation full of insanity, fury and desire. When Don José's love is no longer responded because Carmen turns to another man, the great toreador Escamillo (Racovita Petru), Don José stabs Carmen outside of the bullring in despair, killing her.

 

It is always a rewarding experience to see the audience interacting with what is going on the stage, which means the boundaries of on- and off-stage spaces are mingled and diminished. This was what happened at Carmen that night. The audiences couldn't stop chuckling when the drunk officer, Lieutenant Zuniga (Valeriu Cojocaru), staggered up dishevelled, and when Carmen did her seducing yet irresistible strip dance to Don José to show her passionate love. You could also hear people gasping when the curtain was unveiled for Act 2 with those stunning gypsy girls lining up in flamboyant fans and clothes, and notice the specific excitement stirring the crowd when the preludes of the famous arias (like Habanera and Song of Toreador) started. Although a large portion of the spectators must have been made up by the experienced audience who should have watched Carmen for plenty of times (that's an inevitable thing for being such a top-class world-known opera!), there were people, especially younger generations, who experienced Carmen (or even live opera show) for the first time in their life. Henceforth, the interactions between on- and off- stage made sure that the audience was involved as part of the performance, which not only ensured it as an engaging show, but also confirmed its success. After all, we need more opera shows like this which make people feel sublimed as well as entertained to keep the industry alive and afloat.

 

The gorgeousness of the set and costume design is absolutely another highlight of this production. Although the protagonists suffer as the dark and furious story unfolds on the stage, the colourful costumes and bright and lavish background design were absolutely eye-catching. The darkness of the plot and the lightness of on-stage display formed an unforgettable contrast, which even made the whole play more heart-breaking and breath-taking. In my limited experience, most production of Carmen would set the stage in a black/red colour combination which resembles the blood and parallels with the Spanish and gypsy vibe. However, what we saw from Ellen Kent's production was the shining and stunning brightness with the burning torch, the ethereal blue background, and the pink or ginger dresses and feather fans. The glamorousness fascinated the audience, turning the show into a feast for ears, eyes and souls.

 

Noticeably, it is rare to have a blond Carmen while most times people take this gypsy girl in a black hair image with red flowers pinned at her temples. However, a sense of innovation and rebellion has occurred when Irina Sproglis showed up as Carmen with blond hair and white dress. Rebelliousness is rooted in Carmen undoubtedly. As one century and a half have almost passed since Carmen's premiere, the disapproval of stereotype and the craving for freedom should be more explicitly revealed, especially when we look at Carmen from a feminist perspective. From the beginning when she sings "love is free like a bird", to the end when she has her last words as "kill me or let me go", Carmen is full of agency as a woman who has been genuine and cherishes her free will above all. There are other great operas in which the heroines die in the end, i.e., La Traviata (Verdi) and La Bohème (Puccini) with heroines dead because of illness leaving the audience the melancholic sweetness, and Tosca (Puccini) with the heroine committing suicide in despair. Most female images were depicted as innocent, pure, craving for love and driven by fate. Carmen, however, chooses to confront death bravely and calmly, and emphasizes the power of women choosing their own destiny, even it leads to death. This could probably be the reason why Bizet was not recognized at his life time, and also the reason why people are still crazy about Carmen nowadays. Being twenty years ahead of what audience was prepared to accept, the tragedy of Carmen was also the tragedy of Bizet. But with Carmen now being one of the most popular operas, Bizet is vindicated, and Ellen Kent's production of Carmen is another explicit and breath-taking assertion of the freedom and power of women.

Local Opera: Ellen Kent's Tosca

Review by Megan Sharp and Jenny Huang - Ellen Kent - New Theatre, Oxford - 15 Apr 2022

It was the hottest day of the year so far when Ellen Kent’s Tosca visited the New Theatre in Oxford. Despite a few seats remaining unfilled (arguably due to it being Good Friday), the performance was received to great acclaim. A traditional, classical backdrop was complimented by stylish costumes, and the added presence of real life dogs as part of the guard’s entourage added a little sparkle.

 

Puccini's background setting in the year 1800 perfectly brings out Tosca's dramatic but contradictory personality in the dilemma of saving her love. Tosca's jealousy threatened her love for Cavaradossi, allowing for Scarpia to plant seeds of doubt for his own gain. The sensual performance from the orchestra, combined with the visual spectacle of the staging, had my heart vividly beating with the love between Tosca and Cavaradossi.

 

Elena Dee’s portrayal of Tosca was both charming and captivating, and her aria “Vissi d’arte” was received to huge applause. With a steady and rich voice, the Moldovan baritone, Vladimir Drago delighted audiences with his portrayal of the nasty Scarpia, and the Ukrainian tenor, Vitalii Liskovetskyi, relaxed into the role by the third act. A large proportion of the cast were Ukrainian, so it was fitting and moving that the performance finished with everyone in the auditorium standing for the Ukrainian national anthem. A moving end to a moving performance.

Local Opera: The Barber of Seville

Review by Ben Hunt - Welsh National Opera - New Theatre, Oxford - 12 Nov 2021
WNO The Barber of Seville - Cast of The Barber of Seville photo credit Richard Hubert Smit

Rossini’s vibrant comedy injected new life into the opera buffa genre in 1816, and this consistently amusing production (judging by the admirable amount of audience laughter) succeeds in infusing the evening with witty language play and comedic characterisation, undercut by pertinent explorations of the extent to which people will risk juggling the security of their lifestyle with the pursuit of young love.

The traditional central stage design sets a wonderfully intimate scene to house the complexly intertwined trajectories of the characters’ encounters and disguises. It is a shame that Director Giles Harvergal seems to have felt an urge to add a modern twist to the whole performance with the show-within-a-show concept, which only detracts from the compelling action of the inner stage. The constant stage presence of the chorus ‘audience’ to the sides, drinking wine and moving position through otherwise still and intimate scenes, only distracts from the central action, as does the clear visibility of actors changing props and adjusting costumes behind the inner stage. Their rare entry into the plot at the end of each act also featured re-appearances of an onstage ‘conductor’, over-using a genuinely very funny aspect of the piazza musicians scene from the opera’s opening.

 

The production begins enticingly, as the chorus unroll the curtain with the house lights still on, instantly drawing the audience into the crisply executed orchestral overture. The placement of the orchestra on full show at the front of the theatre, in place of the first few rows of seats, is immensely enjoyable in the overture, but immediately after became the production’s biggest issue. The irony of an overly emphasised string section drowning out the singing in the opening number’s insistence that everyone must be “piano, pianissimo” is only the prelude to an evening of successive moments where the singing was lost to the orchestra to the extent that it looked at times as if characters were mouthing the words.

 

This was all the more unfortunate because there were some truly excellent singers who managed to consistently pierce through the solid wall of orchestral density – Heather Lowe’s excellent portrayal of Rosina saw a stunning voice paired with admirable acting, whilst Angharad Morgan as Bertha sang in a pure voice that carried beautifully every time. Unfortunately, other characters simply lacked the vocal strength to be heard above the orchestra, with much of Nicholas Lester’s low range (as Figaro) and the majority of Keel Watson’s lines (as Basilio) either having indistinguishable text (especially notable when being sung in English), or being entirely inaudible. To be fair, this was not helped by conductor Tomáš Hanus at times pushing the tempo beyond a speed at which the cast could physically enunciate the translated libretto. This became especially problematic at the end of Act I, where co-ordination between the cast and orchestra began slipping, not helped by the genuinely painful (and bizarrely loud) timing of the off-beat percussion chimes, which somehow managed to slip off the off-beat.

 

The orchestral dominance was truly a shame because the action onstage was highly compelling. Andrew Shore gives a convincing and relatable realisation of Dr Bartolo, playing him as an old man out of touch with the younger generation, yet painfully aware of his own deficiencies, making his acceptance of the ending believable and not a sudden jarring. His hilarious moment of falsetto singing, following on from a castrato reference, was the comedy highlight of the evening, which in general presented a long line of very funny punchlines, clever lyric puns (all the more impressive for a translated libretto), and moments of slapstick choreography. The painful neglect to properly balance the sound removed the possibility of greatness from an otherwise very enjoyable production, which had every other constituent to be exceptionally good.

 

Nevertheless, it still provides a very fun evening, as a highly accessible and unintimidating entry into opera. The New Theatre’s COVID-19 precautions were impressively dealt with, with timed entry slots ensuring smooth and uncrowded entry to the theatre. The relatively intimate performance space offered the perfect housing for the personal interactions of The Barber of Seville’s characters.

WNO The Barber of Seville - Cast of The Barber of Seville photo credit Richard Hubert Smit

Local Opera: Madama Butterfly

Review by Rhiannon Petteford - Welsh National Opera - New Theatre, Oxford - 9 Nov 2021
WNO Madam Butterfly - Joyce El-Khoury (Cio-Cio San) & WNO Chorus - photo credit Richard Hu

Replacing an established production of an even greater established opera is an almost thankless task. The memory of the previous performance erodes the satisfaction of the creative process through the inescapable state of competition, and the sharper inevitability of being unable to please everybody. That said, such productions are not therefore fated to be unsuccessful. Lindy Hume and the Welsh National Opera’s certainly is not, and though its success often manifests in ways simpler than the director imagines herself, it delivers a nonetheless effective and uncomfortable statement on the abuse of young women. 

 

Sporadically, the production embodies anxieties regarding the management of its content, and the cultural conversation surrounding it. Hume herself describes the production’s setting as an “imagined biosphere”, and perhaps does herself an injustice by over-intellectualising what is actually a sophisticatedly minimalist production. Where designer Isabella Bywater’s set flourishes is in its neutrality, an exposed space vacant of safety and affection, where all that is made pointedly known is Hume’s anger, and disgust. Rather than complicate things with notions of futurism and dystopia, the production is most successful through its almost virginal state, a clinically white enclosure untouched, unmarked, and isolated from the outside world, providing a contrast to its deeply troubled and abused occupant. Decorations of the wedding guests you wished you didn’t invite and pastel televangelists fade out, leaving merely the bright white of Butterfly’s home, and the dark themes of sexual exploitation that mark it even more starkly as a result. 

 

Hume’s production is intentional. Under her determined and angered instruction there is no room to romanticise. Hume sought to portray the story of an underage girl, trafficked into the hands of a disinterested stranger, a fleeting amusement, and a fiction that causes her descent into delusion. There is no avoiding this against Bywater’s set, and the production’s well-managed pacing ensures there’s little opportunity for the message to become lost. Butterfly’s desperation builds over an uncomfortable, longer second act, and ends swiftly, brutally, as short as her own, painful life, where unlike the production, each precious second wastes away with no direction. 

 

Where it succeeds perhaps more successfully is in its appreciation of Puccini’s music. In such a continuously demanding piece, Carlo Rizzi’s expertly and easily conducted orchestra resonated thunderous and reverberant, giving sickly sweetness to Pinkerton’s manipulation, and manic power to its disastrous consequences. El-Khoury as butterfly grew into her own as the second act continued, her higher notes with a trill that teetered just on the edge of Butterfly’s descent into truly paranoid delusion. Caimi’s Pinkerton appeared boyishly irritating, frivolous and keen and an obvious flake, a reflection of his invested performance. Stone, too, as Sharpless was particularly impressive, displaying natural strength and deft movement between Pinkerton’s gladly unthinking collaborator, and genuine sympathy for Butterfly. Note should be made of the orchestra’s diversity, noticeably spanning several age brackets, and introducing several new members on opening night. The production’s cast too reflected similar diversity, and felt better for it. 

 

Small details take on great profundity in this production. The nods to modern Japan by the eerily choreographed chorus, the American spelling of ‘Honor’ etched on the wall by Butterfly before her death, all serve to create a production that lingers and grows in significance in the days following its viewing. Though Hume’s interpretation may be a little single-minded, and occasionally strange without reason, it is greatly successful, and a brutal answer to the difficult question of how to revamp an established production, one that is nonetheless in increasing need of readdressing.

WNO Madam Butterfly - Alexia Voulgaridou (Cio-Cio San) & Mark Stone (Sharpless) - photo cr
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