Waterperry Opera Festival – Bizet’s Carmen – Samantha Price, Xavier Hetherington & Catriona Hewitson; directed by Anna Morrissey; conducted by Bertie Baigent

Carmen – Opéra-comique in four acts to a libretto by Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy after the novella by Prosper Mérimée [Sung in an English translation by Christopher Cowell to a reorchestration by Leo Geyer]

Carmen — Samantha Price
Don José — Xavier Hetherington
Micaëla — Catriona Hewitson
Escamillo – Matthew Thatcher
Zuniga — Ed Danon
Moralès — Arthur Bruce
Frasquita — Ann Balestra
Mercédès — Elizabeth Lynch
Dancaïre – Mark Nathan
Remendado – David Horton

Waterperry Opera Festival Chorus & Orchestra
Bertie Baigent

Anna Morrissey – Director
Charlotte Henery – Designer
Ryan Day – Lighting designer
Kev McCurdy – Fight & intimacy choreographer
Emma Cole – Placement movement director

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 15 August, 2023
Venue: Waterperry Gardens, Waterperry, Wheatley, Oxfordshire, UK

Having programmed only comedies and lighter-hearted fare in the previous five years of its existence, Waterperry Opera Festival now ventures into the territory of tragic and sensational repertoire with Bizet’s Carmen. Perhaps with the backdrop of Waterperry House, behind the open-air stage in mind, the opera becomes an astutely observed study in domestic violence, rather than a lurid tale that occurs in some far off, exotic location. ‘Violence is not love’ is projected on to the facade at the very end to underline the message, but that is almost glib and superfluous, as the point is made so eloquently within Anna Morrissey’s production itself.

It is more subtle than a crude, straightforward opposition between good and bad, black and white, making a round condemnation of Don José, however, as he is shown almost as much of a victim in being led on by Carmen in the first place, and suffering the brutality of Zuniga, his superior officer. The two levels of the stage set also enable Carmen and her fellow factory workers to hold the policemen below in thrall to them when they first appear.

Escamillo is not a toreador here, but a boxer called Bull, which brings into sharper focus the theme of violence between humans rather than over animals, with boxing’s ritualised pugilism (just as an ironic connection is drawn between the officers’ supposed enforcement of law and order as policemen rather than soldiers, as in the original). It is Carmen and José who effectively play out the bull fight here, even more explicitly than in Bizet’s original against the backdrop of Escamillo’s tournament. Instead of teasing José by dropping a flower, she gives him a handkerchief which she has kissed to leave salaciously the imprint of her lipstick; and her red attire can hardly be accidental either. Both facts, therefore, function as the proverbially provocative rag to the bull. 

As dusk turns into night once the second half of the performance begins (with the smugglers’ scene of Act Three) the story becomes one of dark, gothic terror rather than a sensational but perhaps escapist story under bright, blistering Mediterranean heat. (That said, this production employs a version of the work with spoken dialogue between the numbers, rather than recitative; and so there is the odd instance when the dialogue is passed around between the factory workers, for example, commenting upon events and characters, aptly evoking the chorus of a Greek tragedy.) The concluding contest doesn’t have the formalised display of a bullfight, but is played like a fairground entertainment, with flashy, meretricious colour, as the backdrop for the murderous showdown between José and Carmen, creating a notably sordid juxtaposition of the frivolity of that setting with the tragedy which follows.

If Samantha Price’s Carmen sounds haughty, like a grand operatic heroine, that makes the title role seem all the more wily and manipulative, raising the stakes musically and dramatically in her antagonism with José. Xavier Hetherington is raw in the latter part, but the notes certainly are all there and solid, making for an appropriate characterisation that is hardly a romantic tenor hero. Catriona Hewitson presents an attractively melodious Micaëla, pointing up the contrast between her and Carmen, while Matthew Durkan offers a butch swagger, walking the role of Escamillo on stage as Matthew Thatcher sings it from the side with a complementary vocal bluster, but through an oddly gurgled accent.

Edmund Danon’s Zuniga comes across as a bully more through sly understatement, whereas Mark Nathan and David Horton make more straightforwardly jocular smugglers, Dancaïre and Remendado.

The reduced orchestration, which features a keyboard, perhaps oscillates in effect between sounding like a palm court ensemble and a more louche jazz band. But under Bertie Baigent’s lively conducing, the one-to-a-part forces bring out much instrumental detail and colour which often pass unnoticed, revealing Bizet’s masterful development of little motifs and themes which subtly alter the musical atmosphere as the opera proceeds. Particularly beautiful is the heartfelt entr’acte before Act Three with a sweetly wistful sounding violin, and plaintive oboe mimicking the cor anglais of Bizet’s original scoring. 

The production’s success is due, in no small part, to Kev McCurdy’s contribution as the fight director in enabling the violent choreography to be despatched so effectively within a small setting. Together with Morrissey’s intelligent and topical re-interpretation of this perennial work, the result is one that would not be out of place in any major opera house. 

Further performances to 19 August

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