Review – Carmen, Ellen Kent Productions, Derngate, Northampton, 24th February 2013

CarmenI’m quite partial to a spot of opera. I’m no buff, mind you – so basically, when it comes to working out what’s good and what’s not in the opera world, I can only go with my gut reactions. We’ve seen Carmen three times now – the first time was an infamously modern interpretation by English National Opera at the Coliseum in 1986, which sparked a lot of furore at the time – but we rather liked it. Then we saw it about eight years ago at the Leipzig Oper, which was very entertaining – but mainly remarkable for the fact that my shoe fell apart during the course of the evening and I had to hop back to the hotel afterwards. And now the third time is Ellen Kent’s touring production at the Derngate.

Carmen and her stallionWe’d not seen any Ellen Kent productions before. Their advertisements always proclaim they’ve got something potentially gimmicky in the show – for example, in this Carmen, there is a “majestic Andalucian stallion” ** (see double asterisks in the advert – which signifies “certain venues only”.) That get-out clause passed me by when we booked to see it – thus we saw neither the horse nor the rider (geddit?) Tosca, which was performed the following evening (which we didn’t see) apparently featured a magnificent Golden Eagle **. (**Same rider applies). The £5 souvenir brochure (toppy for the provinces) features a quote from the Times in 2006, saying that Ellen Kent’s spectaculars are the “Las Vegas of opera”. Well, I confess I have never been to Las Vegas, but I really would hope that their shows are a bit glitzier than this one.

Nadezhda StoianovaI guess any opera production will succeed or fail on the singing and the orchestra. Well to my mind and ears, this all sounded pretty good. The orchestra obviously wasn’t enormous, but they played with good attack and at a good volume, and got the Spanish feeling across very nicely. I missed the two entr’acte pieces of music though – it was a shame to cut these, as they are two of Bizet’s greatest hits IMHO. The singing was also of a very good standard. Carmen was played by Nadezhda Stoianova, and she had a lovely rich voice and an understated sexiness – Carmen has to be sexy, doesn’t she? She was alluring and her eyes suggested a subtle promise of naughty things if you managed to keep in her good books. As the perfect opposite, I really liked Ecaterina Danu as Micaela, pure and virginal, keenly reporting her messages from Don Jose’s mum, and shying away from those nasty rough soldiers. I thought her Act One duet with Don Jose was stunningly beautiful. Sorin Lupu sang Don Jose, and he has a refined tenor voice which was very enjoyable. Iurie Gisca was the embodiment of how you would imagine Escamillo to look if he played rugby – stocky and forceful, and with a good strong voice. I also very much enjoyed Maria Tonina and Olga Busuioc as Frasquita and Mercedes, plotting mischievously and singing beautifully, and together with Anatolie Arcea as Dancairo and Ivan Dogot as Remendado, as well as Miss Stoianova, they performed the Act Two quintet “Nous avons en tête une affaire” with a very amusing lightness of touch. Finally Iurie Maimescu sang Zuniga very well and gave a great “drunk act” performance in Lillas Pastia’s bar.

Ecaterina DanuThe other good thing about this production is the costume department. The soldiers’ uniforms were colourful and eye-catching; the Spanish gypsies had just the right combination of style and colour, all fringes and lace which looked just right to me – mind you, what do I know about costumes; and the parade (such as it was) of picadors, banderillos, and matador looked elegant and their garish gear was suitably peacock-like.

Sorin LupuSo far, so good then. The trouble is, for me the show was not the sum of its parts. Whilst the backing chorus characters sang very well – most notably in the Act Four bullfight scene – they looked incredibly under-rehearsed, shifted self-consciously from position to position, and spent far too long gazing for inspiration at the conductor rather than interacting with each other or looking at the audience. To be honest, many of the main performers did that too – and you lose confidence in a singer when they’re eyes are transfixed on the podium like rabbits in headlights. Miss Stoianova and Miss Danu were the notable exceptions here. The cigarette girls squabbling between each other and allegedly “attacking” each other in Act One was possibly the least convincing catfight ever seen on a stage. I found it embarrassing to watch. There were a few scenes that caused some members of the audience to laugh out loud in a rather scornful way, simply because the direction and staging was so lame. Mocking laughter really undermines a performance. The set itself looked cheap and shoddy – you could see a distinct gap between panels that were meant to represent the solid wall outside the cigarette factory – and when the doors to the factory were open, the side wall was missing and you just saw the performers moving to and fro on their way on and off the stage. When Escamillo entered the stage for his Toreador song in Act Two, he bounded on full of fearless confidence and stood on the table ready to sing – but it looked like he got there about twenty seconds too early, so all he could do was look around a bit sheepishly waiting for his song to start.

Maria ToninaAnd we didn’t get the stallion. I realised afterwards that the Derngate was obviously a no-stallion zone; but I heard mutterings in the audience about the non-appearance of the equine star. “He was neigh there” joshed Mrs Chrisparkle. “Maybe Findus got him first” said someone else. Instead we had a donkey. He came on for a few minutes in Act One, chewed a bit of hay and then got led off. If there were an award for the most pointless appearance of an animal in an opera, I know who I would have my money on. Still, at least he was continent. At the end, there was an announcement that there would be a collection for the Donkey Sanctuary. I’ve nothing against donkeys, but to be honest it’s not high up in my charity priorities. Nevertheless I scrambled around for some change – only to find on exit that there was no one collecting after all. They even managed to get that wrong.

Iurie MaimescuWhich brings me to the curtain call. This actually summed up the whole evening. Despite the good singing and the nice costumes there was something about this production that drained you. The audience weren’t energised by Bizet’s fantastic tunes, we were enervated by the whole thing. Why else would a packed house start up the round of applause at the end of the show, only for it to die down and actually stop before the curtain rose for the cast to take their bows. That’s a sign of extreme indifference by the audience. As the performers came out and took their bows I did find myself saying to myself, “oh yes, I liked him” and “actually, she was good”, but despite all this the applause had to be wrung out of us. When Mr Lupu came out to take his applause, he was full of grand gestures, the hand across the heart, wearing almost a belligerent smile, and then he shocked us by victoriously thumping his hand on the stage floor as if he had just broken his personal best at La Scala. Well I’ve never seen that done before – maybe it’s de rigueur in Romania.

Suffice it to say that Mrs C has begged me not to book for their return later in the year. A real shame, actually, as it’s obviously an honest endeavour and there is a lot of talent on display. But really, to call it “Am Dram” is to give “Am Dram” a bad name.