First published in the Guardian on 13 October, 2015
This old production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser premiered in Cardiff in 1997 and has resurfaced at both Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera several times since. It’s easy to see why. It’s a fail-proof Carmen, dark and sumptuous, full of soft-lit Seville oranges and sultry poses. It will never look old or ruffle too many feathers. It doesn’t really push a particular reading of Carmen either as feminist maverick or figment of male fantasy, but there’s just enough subtlety in the power play to keep things tantalising. The final confrontation between Carmen and Don Jose happens on a stripped-back stage with a sudden emotional starkness that lingers after the curtain falls.
Justina Gringyte sings the title role, fresh from Calixto Bieito’s rather friskier production at English National Opera earlier this year. Here she is the classic gypsy stereotype, all swooshy skirts and swarthy glances, but more interestingly she can really sing: her voice is steel clad, hotly phrased, superbly controlled. Maybe she overdoes the opening scenes but her colours soften through the opera as they should. She can move, too, and play the castanets just about in time while doing so. It’s an impressive performance.
Noah Stewart is a full-voiced, vulnerable and credulous Don Jose, not a patch on Gringyte’s stage presence or colour palette. Nadine Livingston plays an entirely innocent Michaela with poised singing and a sweet worthiness that gets a bit cloying. That there’s zero chemistry between her and Don Jose misses a fairly important trick. Roland Wood’s is a solid Escamillo; David Parry conducts a chunky, pert-sounding orchestra. Contours are well defined, tempos are sturdy, all the big tunes are as clearly sign-posted as the thick red brush strokes that adorn the stage curtain. It’s not the most nuanced Carmen, but it’s robust.