This term’s CUOS mainshow takes on Carmen, a mainstay of the operatic repertoire and popular favourite. Director Eleanor Burke updated the piece to an unobtrusive modern dress, with striking minimal sets, losing any Spanish kitsch and concentrating expressive power. This decision foregrounded the piece’s emotional intensity, generally very successfully: Burke got committed performances from all of her singers, and worked very well with some of the opera’s shortfalls. Despite its famous arias, Carmen can be a long, meandering, night at the opera, and Burke stripped it down to its compelling core. It did mean, however, that any dramatic shortfalls were more noticeable.
Chloe Allison, as Carmen, was a magnetic stage presence, but had some difficulties with the character’s interiority. It’s not an easy task, given how she’s written, but in a laudable and largely successful attempt to evade sexualised stereotyping some of her humour was lost – this Carmen mostly seemed angry. Allison projected well, but lacked ideal support throughout her range, and tended to artificially darken vowels, which became more pronounced when she was singing in French. As Don Jose, Maximilian Lowrie sang strongly and displayed an unforced, sweet timbre, with ringing top notes. He gave a truly lovely rendition of Jose’s aria. Again, however, he struggled with the character’s (underwritten) interiority, and was dramatically overpowered by Allison. Until the very last scene Allison and Lowrie didn’t connect, giving individually skilled but rather separate performances. However, the final confrontation between Carmen and José showed each singer at their best, connected to their character and to each other.
As Micaëla, Anna-Luise Wagner was touching and genuine, and miraculously unaffected in a role which can easily lapse into nineteenth-century schmaltz. Her voice mostly evidenced a silvery bloom, although a touch metallic at the very top. But she moved and acted naturally, avoiding the more mannered slips the production was prone to. Escamillo’s Toréador song was, unfortunately, almost inaudible. Although Louis Wilson (Escamillo) had nice physical touches to his performance, he simply didn’t project in the space of West Road Concert Hall. Luke Thomas was excellent in the small role of Moralès, an unpleasant corporal. He didn’t have much singing to do, but acted well, was thoroughly and unshowily in character and completely at ease on stage. Under musical director Oliver Cope, the orchestra rattled along, some questionable intonation in slower, softer numbers notwithstanding. The ensemble between pit and stage was sensitive and developed. The chorus sang beautifully with a lovely blended tone, although it moved a little awkwardly.
There’s much to admire about this production, with its brave directorial choices and accomplished performances. It didn’t completely come together dramatically, and on occasion went slack between set piece scenes. But those scenes were, individually, done very well. Although it didn’t always gel, CUOS’s Carmen makes for a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable evening.