Review: Ellen Kent’s Carmen at the Grand Opera House


James Clay (he/him) reviews recent revival of the classic opera

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By James Clay

Ellen Kent’s production of Carmen, performed by the Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv, came to York for a night of operatic delight on 26 April. It was a modest but nonetheless appealing performance of Georges Bizet’s classic which struck a surprisingly light tone.

Carmen tells the story of Don José, who abandons his mother, childhood lover and his position as a Corporal of the Dragoons, in pursuit of Carmen, an iniquitous yet seductive gypsy girl. All this sacrifice goes to ruin as, in her own struggle, she falls for the dashing champion bullfighter Escamillo. In the end, Don José kills Carmen in a bout of jealous rage following her playful taunts.

In terms of individual performances, the two leads, Irina Sproglis and Davit Sumbadze, exploited both vocal prowess and impressive physicality to exude the love and anguish shared between Carmen and Don José. Their moments of physical intimacy were pitched not with vulgarity but rather in a way that would avoid horrifying the more old-fashioned members of the audience.

The very moderately sized ensemble can’t go unmentioned. Operas, particularly ones like Bizet’s Carmen, are known for their Homeric magnificence and vast scale. With a larger ensemble, the magic of the lyrics can bloom to their fullest degree. Opting for quality over quantity instead means that there is nowhere to hide. Every member of the ensemble can be seen, so it becomes far easier to distract attention from the leads when, even momentarily, one individual isn’t quite hitting the right note. There is a demand laid upon ensemble members to perform with such strength that, as individuals, they equal the accumulated presence which would typically be expected from two or three performers. Albeit only briefly, the ensemble at times didn’t quite meet this requirement.

Another minor criticism has to be laid at the doors of Iurie Gisca’s performance as Escamillo, the champion bullfighter. His vocal performance was unquestionably excellent, particularly during “Les Toreadors”, however, this wasn’t matched physically. Escamillo is a winning sportsman in his prime, who spends his time in battle with literal bulls. Gisca, given his age, appeared more like a retired bullfighter, no longer prancing around with sportsman-esque vigour.

In contrast, Vitalli Cebotari shone in his supporting roles as both Moralès and later one of the two smugglers. There was a resemblance between him and the mischievous Private Walker in Dad’s Army. Cebotari had an affable air about him which struck me as very pleasing. The chemistry between him, the other smuggler and the two companions of Carmen characterised the strength which lay within the supporting cast.

Bizet wrote Carmen in 1873, as operatic trends shifted from the pre-established opéra comique style to the more dominant realism seen within verismo, most commonly associated with the great Italian composers and writers. Carmen has a somewhat ambiguous nature, as, in one sense, it is a straightforward tragedy but it is also littered with plenty of moments for comedic levity. This poses a challenge to all producers regarding how to strike an appropriate tone.

This particular performance opted for a comparatively lighter tone, potentially to contrast with the deep anguish associated with any tragedy. Tonality can reveal itself in many forms but, above anything else, it was the set and costumes chosen which struck me, from the very beginning, as gentile and clement. The backdrop was of a classical lemon building facade with steps in the centre leading to a large doorway, adorned by columns on either side. It was the sort of building that reminded me more of a Roman plaza than a Seville square, not that I have even been to Spain.

Likewise, the costumes tended to be lighter in hue. Specifically, the doublets worn by the soldiers matched the mousy brown of the set. In what risked being a tad jarring, the trousers and helmets were bright blue, which seemed to belong more in a pantomime than an opera. One has to walk a very fine line so as not to undermine the gravity and distress which naturally characterise any tragedy.

My own personal preference would have been for a more serious, darker performance, however miserable and foreboding that may have been. Regardless of the creative decisions made, the performance was still thoroughly enjoyable and made for a very captivating evening at the opera. Bizet’s genius as a composer comes through in any professional performance of Carmen.

Editor's Note: This performance was seen on 26 April 2024 at the Grand Opera House, York.