The Welsh National Opera took to the Hippodrome stage for the Bristol leg of their UK tour of Carmen. This was a revival of Welsh National Opera’s production in the late 1990s, co-produced with Scottish Opera.

Peter Wedd (Don José) and Alessandra Volpe (Carmen) © Jeni Clegg
Peter Wedd (Don José) and Alessandra Volpe (Carmen)
© Jeni Clegg

Bizet’s Carmen, based on the story by Prosper Mérimée, is one of the most familiar operas. Librettist Henri Meilhac recounted the tale of soldier Don José who is seduced by a gypsy woman who works in a cigarette factory. Don José abandons his childhood love Micaëla and deserts the military, even serving a prison sentence for letting Carmen escape custody after she is involved in a brawl at the cigarette factory. Despite Don José’s efforts, Carmen the seductress falls for the toreador Escamillo and Don José ends up killing her in a jealous rage.

With a heavily pregnant Alessandra Volpe playing the lead seductive role of Carmen, the story was a little difficult to identify with. This was a shame because her tempestuous acting skills and Mediterranean look made her perfect for the role otherwise. Taking this into consideration though, her performance itself was impressive. Volpe gave a fiery and passionate attempt and although she was clearly more tired towards the end of the night and struggling with power in some of the higher notes, it didn’t detract too much from her performance. What did detract from Volpe’s performance as the lead was the unexpectedly beautiful voices of her two sidekicks Frasquita, played by Samantha Hay and Mercédès, played by Emma Carrington. The sultry lower tones delivered by mezzo-soprano Carrington had much more of an impact than Volpe’s voice, upstaging her role completely.

Welsh National Opera had other secret stars in their Chorus, full of brilliant voices. In fact, it was the WNO Chorus that carried this performance on their shoulders, as they were consistently dynamic and the driving force behind the production. Tenor Peter Wedd, playing Don José, gave a strong and consistent vocal and acting performance. His energy did not tire throughout the evening and his portrayal of a loss of sanity and naivety as Don José is captured by Carmen’s love was convincing. Escamillo, the grand toreador played by bass-baritone Simon Thorpe, was not as convincingly grand. His voice lacked the arrogance it required and it was less believable that Carmen would have chosen this more passive character to love instead of Don José.

The soloists were at a disadvantage with the orchestra being directly in front of the stage masking some of the voice projection, despite this, the orchestra cannot be faulted for impact under the baton of young and vibrant James Southall who has been repetiteur with the Welsh National Opera since 2008. From the offstage bugle calls to the beautiful harp melodies, the instrumental side of the performance was virtually faultless.

The aesthetic production values of the performance were excellent. The Spanish costumes were presented in meticulous detail, even including the children’s traditional espadrille shoes. Everything was from the correct period with a modern edge and the opening scene with the yellow-clad soldiers lined up and their rifles stacked on the side of the stage gave a strong start to the evening. The Goya inspired set design, by Christian Fenouillat, consisted of three simple panels painted in muddy browns and greys that created a sparse background for the vibrant story.

WNO Chorus © Jeni Clegg
WNO Chorus
© Jeni Clegg

The most impressively choreographed scenes were in Act IV, which opened with a diagonal line of baskets of oranges and an elaborately dressed chorus in reds, greens, yellows and oranges waving fans. The bullfight scene was simple and effective. A rope was suspended across the front of the stage and the chorus cheered and looked out towards the audience in slow motion. Unfortunately the most nonsensical scene was saved until last. The final argument scene between Don José and Carmen was weak. A head-butting Carmen, supposedly representing a bullfight between the two of them caused audience laughter and didn’t contain the dramatic impact or tension required to end the opera with Carmen’s death. Where in other productions, this moment has previously brought tears to my eyes, it left me with a feeling of indifference.