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A surefire hit

Bizet's 'Carmen' at Stowe Opera
appreciated by RODERIC DUNNETT

 

Stowe Opera is one of the secret, unsung delights of British Summer opera. Indeed, the quality of Stowe's recent stagings -- Il Trovatore, Lucia di Lammermoor, then Don Carlo, Rusalka (with the Royal Northern College of Music's Julian Close as the Water Sprite) and Hansel and Gretel -- has been so high that one almost hesitates to dub this year's Carmen their best yet.

But this staging by Yvonne Fontane, who not only sang the title role (after impressing, but less controlledly, as the witch in Hansel last year) but directed the production as well, is indeed Stowe's punchiest and raunchiest to date. Stowe's spring-in-the-step music director, Robert Secret, conducted a Carmen that -- if Ian McKillop's visually impressive, solid set (one fountain that exactly mirrored one in Stowe's abutting Capability Brown landscape) would permit it -- easily deserved to tour; a Carmen that would have graced Sadler's Wells, and not have disgraced the Coliseum.

Yvonne Fontane as Carmen and Sophia Grech as Mercedes. Photo © 2004 John Credland
Yvonne Fontane as Carmen and Sophia Grech as Mercedes. Photo © 2004 John Credland

If there were drawbacks (there were few; though the lack of surtitles -- or Holland Park-like 'side-titles' -- remains one), they paled into insignificance when compared with the massive merits of this production.

Stowe gave us the sultry mid-Spain and sensual interplay of military and match-girls of Act I; the distinctly nasty twists of Act II, culminating in the cynical dispatch of Gwion Thomas's increasingly engaging -- indeed vulnerable -- Zuniga; the shivery, almost mythic isolation of the smugglers' Act III in the mountains, where Alex Grove's Remendado keeps watch like a sort of ever-present death's head as things to come to a head; plus a kind of rouged hellishness in the last scene -- where it's Sophia Grech's shrillish Mercedes who hands over the fatal knife (such useful things, friends).

Carmen (Yvonne Fontane) is polished off by Michael Bracegirdle's deranged Don José. Photo © 2004 John Credland
Carmen (Yvonne Fontane) is polished off by Michael Bracegirdle's deranged Don José. Photo © 2004 John Credland

At this final part Fontane (both director and victim) elects -- a brilliant decision that truly works here -- to ignore the usual frenetic last minute crowd onrush; instead, she leaves Don José onstage alone at the end with Carmen's body, like the culmination of some particularly savage piece of film noir.

And that's what Carmen is, really: realism opera, two decades before verismo took over, as if to remind us that Massenet, or Traviata and Rigoletto, or even Bellini, were -- like Victor Hugo's true to life dramas -- pointing the way verismo-wards, decades before Puccini had even penned a note.

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Copyright © 3 October 2004 Roderic Dunnett, Mirfield, Yorkshire, UK

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