There’s something about Carmen, with its seductive storyline and memorable melodies that seems to speak to us clearly across the centuries. And this entertaining and attractive production from Irish National Opera certainly drew in the crowds into the packed theatre, social distancing and masks happily now a thing of the past.

Paula Murrihy (Carmen)
© Ruth Medjber

The opera recounts the convoluted love lives of Carmen, a fiery and ultimately fickle gypsy and a vacillating corporal Don José who is driven mad by his love for this femme fatale and ends up exacting a hideous revenge with dire consequences for them both. Director Paul Curran sets Bizet's opera somewhere in 1950s Seville, a shift of a century or so from the original setting, but this change does not detract at all from the action on stage. Curran’s aim was to “create a show that feels like it runs like a movie”. And in this aim, succeed he does. The action flows entertainingly without a dull moment. Garry McCann’s sets are lush and evocative; sand-coloured army barracks, fruit sellers with baskets and an enormous billboard advertising cigarettes above the tobacco factory in Act 1; an outdoor café scene for the singing of the three gypsies in Act 2 while a long, ominous warehouse allowed the smugglers to leave their loot in Act 3.

The eponymous heroine was played by Irish mezzo Paula Murrihy. Possessing a golden, malleable voice she was at her most impressive descending with languor the melody of the Habanera. Here an adroit balance was struck between power and feminine allure that helped explain her sway over all the men and women, as she divested herself of suitably extraneous parts of her costume. Murrihy brought feistiness to the fore in her depiction of this strong-willed Carmen. Her berating and mocking of Don José’s desire to do his duty and return to the army was brilliantly and naturally done. She was less convincing in the role of seductress and her solo dance to entertain her lover was underwhelming.

Paula Murrihy (Carmen), Dinyar Vania (Don José), Celine Byrne (Micaëla) and INO chorus
© Ruth Medjber

Added to this was a lack of chemistry between Murrihy and Dinyar Vania’s Don José. Possessing a pleasing if not particularly forceful tenor voice, Vania started off rather emotionally disengaged. He didn’t seem that fussed about Micaëla, performed by the excellent Celine Byrne. This might have been the desired effect he wanted to create, but equally he didn’t seem too smitten by Carmen on first seeing her. Certainly it did not suggest a man of volcanic passions who will be subsumed into a vortex of madness and will eventually murder the woman he loves. His acting and his voice opened up by Act 2, revealing a rich middle range but the quality of voice was still thin in the higher register. 

The character of the rejected lover of Micaëla is more or less a sop to the main action, who appears at odd intervals. While it is tricky to convey depth to this part, Byrne managed to convey an endearing purity and innocence to her role. Byrne’s soprano, too, was certainly the most striking voice of the evening, its pellucid quality bound to melt even the most obdurate man. Bass-baritone Milan Siljanov imbued his role as Escamillo with plenty of chutzpah. He entered with terrific pizzazz on his motorbike in leather jacket and jeans, the epitome of cool. Here was a definite counterpart to the feisty heroine and we could understand why she would leave the emotionally perfunctory Don José.

Paula Murrihy (Carmen) and Milan Siljanov (Escamillo)
© Ruth Medjber

Both Rachel Croash as Frasquita and Niamh O’Sullivan as Mercedes really excelled as the gypsies. Croash, in particular possesses a stunning voice. Brendan Collins as the smuggler Le Dancaïre was commendable both in his singing and acting. The chorus of the INO sung lustily and well, the scene of the crowds in Act 4 was terrifically done. The children’s chorus was charming, mocking the soldiers brilliantly and singing with great vim and vigour. Finally conductor Kenneth Montgomery elicited a wide range of dynamics from the INO orchestra. There were a few moments of co-ordination difficulties with the singers and orchestra but there was no doubting his energy and drive to bring the music to its fateful conclusion.