By Sofia Brizio
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
My love for Bizet’s Carmen dates back to my early childhood. Growing up in an Italian household meant that opera and classical music in one form or the other were always playing, to the point that during long and warm summer nights I used to be unable to fall asleep without some soothing opera-singing in the background. I quickly realised that it was virtually impossible to fall asleep to Carmen, but I still fell in love with the Spanish-sounding music and the aura of mystery around the beautiful protagonist. I even attempted to sing a few bits when I was part of a very ambitious children’s choir (as you can imagine, that didn’t go very well…).
Despite my many memories of my mum and my grandpa humming the Toreador Song around the house, I had never seen Carmen live until the other night. When I found out that the Welsh National Opera had their own production running in Cardiff, I decided it was time to take a trip down memory lane, with a twist.
As always when it comes to WNO productions, I wasn’t disappointed. The director’s (Jo Davies) innovative take on Bizet’s classic made for a truly unique experience. The most amazing aspects to me were the set (designed by Leslie Travers) and the props. Carmen is revisited in a contemporary light, which keeps all the flavours of Latin America from the original production while arguably making a bold political statement. The backdrop of Carmen’s life is, in fact, visually inspired by Brazilian favelas, symbolising the economic and social hardship that the protagonist faces every day.
Most importantly, this production raises important questions in light of the #MeToo movement. Is it still acceptable in 2019 for Carmen to die for a man’s jealousy? There have been so-called ‘feminist’ productions of the opera where, in the final scene, Carmen rebels and kills Don José, but is subverting Bizet’s version of the story really a statement in favour of women’s equality? My answer is no, and the WNO production demonstrated this perfectly. Carmen as played by Virginia Verrez is not just a femme fatal. Of course she uses sex and her looks to get what she wants and compensate for her social status, but she is first and foremost a leader. The entire cast seems to rotate around her, mesmerised by her aura of confidence, but she doesn’t care about anything or anyone but herself.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Carmen is a feminist character, as the fact that she’s only remembered for her openly ‘scandalous’ sexuality indicates that there is still a long way to go in terms of women’s sexual equality. But the reason why the first performance of Bizet’s masterpiece in 1875 was met with an outrageous, deafening silence is precisely that there was no damsel in distress; no woman torn between two men with whom she can’t do without. Carmen is someone who is not willing to compromise on her freedom, knows what she wants and is able to put herself first. And there’s nothing more intimidating than that.
I got all of this and more from Verrez’s interpretation of Carmen. I was unable to take my eyes off her from the first moment she walked on stage. Her perfect rendition of Habanera (L’amour est un osieau rebelle) made me feel like I was six years old all over again and think, “I want to be like her when I grow up”; a feeling which grew more and more as I watched her walk almost knowingly and willingly towards her death in the name of freedom. Micaela (Anita Watson) is another female character who has now a special place in my heart, thanks to Watson’s rendition. Clever and passionate, but at the same time reflective and discrete, she tries to convince don José to go back to his dying mother and to pull him away from the looming tragedy. Both Verrez and Watson delivered flawless performances that will stay with me for a long time.
I was less impressed by the male protagonists Don José (Dimitri Pittas) and Escamillo (Philip Rhodes). Although they are both undeniably talented, I felt that their singing was at times weak and not very effective. Nevertheless, Rhodes was such a magnetic presence on stage and his rendition of Toreador Song (Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre), my personal favourite, captured me from the very first note. Finally, Pittas and Verrez performed a heart-breaking, excruciatingly beautiful finale (Ou vas tu?) that almost moved me to tears and is undoubtedly the highlight of this production.
It is safe to say that this is one of the most beautiful and thought-provoking productions I’ve seen from the WNO. Carmen will also feature in the Welsh National Opera 2020 Spring Season. It’s an experience you don’t want to miss, so get your tickets while you can!
This production is now transferring to the West End’s London Coliseum. For more information please check https://seatplan.com/london/london-coliseum-theatre/.