It’s difficult to say anything strikingly new when you are directing the world’s most performed opera, so sensibly Cecilia Stinton’s new production of Bizet’s Carmen for Opera Holland Park keeps it pretty straight, honouring all the flashing-eyed, haughty-gypsy, leering-soldier tropes, while giving free rein to conductor Lee Reynolds to drive the action through the score. Throughout the evening, Reynolds positively tingled with delight, keeping the whole piece aloft with his exuberant direction – and the City of London Sinfonia responded in glorious Technicolor. Could this really be the same band that so tamely accompanied Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin just two nights before? Surely not.

Kezia Bienek (Carmen)
© Ali Wright

Keeping it straight doesn’t mean that Stinton is bereft of ideas. Carmen and her feisty tobacco factory friends take no nonsense from the boys in the barracks, and Mercédès doesn’t hold back when her friend is in mortal danger, leaping on Don José’s back in a desperate attempt to prevent the inevitable tragedy. It was a shame the first-night audience mistook this as a cue to laugh, thereby ruining the tension right at the climax of the piece.

Opera Holland Park Chorus
© Ali Wright

Carmen and Don José were given commanding performances by mezzo Kezia Bienek and tenor Oliver Johnston, but both are developing worrying vibrato which marred their otherwise committed and passionate performances. Real quality singing came from touchingly ardent soprano Alison Langer, as Micaëla, baritone Jacob Phillips, as an impressively forthright Zuniga, and mezzo Ellie Edmonds, as the determined Mercédès.

This season, OHP is again using a cleverly moveable set by takis, made up of adaptable sections that can suggest the grandeur of St Petersburg in Eugene Onegin or the back streets of Seville in Carmen. Those sections feel a bit claustrophobic for Lillas Pastia’s tavern in the second act until baritone Thomas Mole strode in as the swaggering bullfighter Escamillo, and the whole place lit up. This exciting young singer brought real punch to his familiar vocal line, while fully aware of the sometimes absurd nature of his character.

Kezia Bienek (Carmen) and Oliver Johnston (Don José)
© Ali Wright

Conscious that Covid is still with us, Opera Holland Park is operating at 75% capacity, which gives it space – as last season – to add a catwalk stage that wraps around the orchestra, bringing the action forward. Sadly, not enough use is made of it in this production, but that is probably because it brings its own problems of audibility and cohesion; when singers have their backs to the conductor, things can quickly unravel. 

Alison Langer (Micaëla)
© Ali Wright

The OHP Chorus worked hard to emulate factory workers, soldiers, gypsy dancers and smugglers, ably assisted by the best children’s chorus I have heard in a long while. Organised through Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, West Kensington, these young performers sang with admirable accuracy and infectious enthusiasm. Hats off to their music director, Scott Price.

***11