Welsh National Opera’s programme notes are stuffed with #MeToo references but the stage is not. Rather, this was as clear and unadorned a telling of Carmen as you’re likely to see. Yes, it’s been updated to modern-day South America, but as far as Bizet’s masterpiece is concerned you get (to quote Jaws) the head, the tail, the whole damn fish. And nowadays that’s a rare beast indeed.

Virginie Verrez (Carmen) and Dimitri Pittas (Don José) © Bill Cooper
Virginie Verrez (Carmen) and Dimitri Pittas (Don José)
© Bill Cooper

Tempo choices and interpretational zing made for a thrilling musical experience, with the orchestra under Tomáš Hanus adding splashes of Technicolor to Jo Davies’s consciously drab, yet lively and inventive production. WNO’s music director found unhackneyed tones and tints throughout Bizet’s over-familiar score, and was rewarded by playing (plus singing from the resplendent Chorus together with an outstanding clutch of children) of the highest order.

Leslie Travers, one of the most resourceful designers on the circuit, has produced an imposing, widescreen crescent set that may need some tweaking when this production tours to smaller stages than that of the Wales Millennium Centre. With minimal changes of décor, its three storeys succeed in evoking all four of the opera’s disparate Brazilian locations, an achievement due in no small part to Oliver Fenwick’s subtle lighting. The latter is a deceptively elaborate and, dare I say, award-worthy achievement that fleshes out each environment and guides the eye as the action requires. While few in the audience will have consciously noticed Fenwick’s input, it was impossible not to be affected by its impact on the visual experience.

<i>Carmen</i> © Bill Cooper
Carmen
© Bill Cooper

Most of the solo singing reached the same high standard, with only the Don José of Dimitri Pittas disappointing. This was not through any shortcoming on the tenor’s part but because the weightiness of his vocal style was at odds with the plangent refinement of Bizet’s writing. Philip Rhodes as the toreador Escamillo didn’t so much walk the walk as strut the strut, and his fruity posturing went some way to covering a routine delivery of the lothario’s second-act showpiece. Prominent among the ‘minor’ men for both their singing and acting were Ross Ramgobin, whose charismatic engagement turned the soldier Moralès into an all-but-principal character for the duration of Act 1, and in an eye-catching piece of luxury casting Henry Waddington as a notably intimidating Zuniga.

Harriet Eyley and Angela Simkin blended ideally as Frasquita and Mercédès, while soprano Anita Watson captured the opera’s true tragedy, that of the spurned Micaëla and her devotion to José and to his dying mother, in an impeccably sung account of her exquisite music.

Virginie Verrez (Carmen) and Henry Waddington (Zuniga) © Bill Cooper
Virginie Verrez (Carmen) and Henry Waddington (Zuniga)
© Bill Cooper

Inevitably, any performance of Carmen stands or falls by its central performance, and WNO has hired a fiery jewel for the title role. Virginie Verrez, blest by her origins with a native’s command of French, acted not with fire and ice but with gallic insouciance and the sense of a young woman who’s at ease with her allure and at peace with her sexuality. Her characterisation, natural and unaffected, has more in common with Sophie Marceau than Brigitte Bardot; it’s a modern interpretation that she sang with startling beauty and power.

Production tics attest to Jo Davies’s broad experience as a director of musical theatre, and indeed she could not have picked a standard opera that has more in common with Carousel or Oklahoma!. Her disposition of multiple characters in ensemble scenes is deftly achieved and pictorially satisfying, with major arias signalled and showcased with all the zip of a Broadway expert. Ingenious switches of location within a standalone set are exciting for their very inventiveness, nowhere more so than in her fast-changing configurations of giant mesh barriers during the final act’s bustling public scenes.

Virginie Verrez (Carmen) © Bill Cooper
Virginie Verrez (Carmen)
© Bill Cooper

Her approach to the title role is both bold and traditional: Carmen’s first-act catfight is as protracted and detailed as any you’ll see, she clinks shot glasses as makeshift castanets to seduce Don José, and she employs stillness instead of slinkiness to draw predatory males to her grasp. Davies is helped by a leading lady who is the best new Carmen I’ve seen since her compatriot Stéphanie d’Oustrac made her Glyndebourne debut. Verrez herself was last seen in Britain as Erika in that company’s recent production of Barber’s Vanessa; the south-coasters could do worse than build a revival of their David McVicar Carmen around her. She is that good.

****1