Cape Town Opera’s spectacular production of Carmen returns for a third outing. While this very traditional design from 2005 is showing its age, it is still visually appealing. Interestingly George Bizet had never visited Spain before composing his magnum opus, but his score, filled with Spanish rhythms and gypsy melodies, is enough to transport one to some francophone idea of Spain.
The previous run in 2011 was marred by a Don José who was not quite up to the task. This time round, thankfully, there are no weak links in the sterling cast. In the title role is Cape Town’s favourite Bulgarian/South African mezzo-soprano, Violina Anguelov. With her dark Eastern European features and sultry voice, she transforms herself into the titular gypsy seductress.
Carmen is a tale of love, lust, jealousy and murder. Without a convincing jealous lover, the drama would fall apart. Canadian tenor Luc Robert is just that. Initially he comes across as a duty-bound soldier and mama’s boy. Nevertheless, he falls for Carmen’s seduction, and leaves his life behind to join her. Still, news of his mother’s ill health is enough to hasten his return home. This enrages Carmen, and the pair part on a sour note. Later he becomes a misogynistic monster, hellbent on destroying the woman he can’t have.
Carmen’s new love interest, the bullfighter Escamillo, is sung by South African-born baritone William Berger, whose warm lyrical voice is a joy to listen to. He makes for a rather camp toreador, however. In his Act III confrontation with Don José, the chemistry between the two adversaries was such that I feared the two men might elope, leaving Carmen disconsolate.
Rounding out the lead cast, soprano Noluvuyiso Mpofu received the biggest applause of the night for her stirring portrayal of the wallflower Micaëla.
The supporting cast members are no less stellar than the leads. Baritone Johannes Slabbert is a lecherous Morales; Xolela Sixaba’s sonorous bass voice lends authority to Lieutenant Zuniga; soprano Siphamandla Yakupa and mezzo Nonhlanhla Yende are outstanding in the Card Trio; finally, baritone Mandla Mndebele and tenor Given Nkosi acquit themselves well in their minor roles as the smugglers Dancaïre and Remendado, the latter imbibing a bit too much of their contraband wine.
Designer Michael Mitchell’s sets make good use of the stage revolve, making scene changes seamless and keeping the action flowing. Along with his costumes and Faheem Bardien’s lighting design, they have created picturesque scenes of blazingly hot Spanish afternoons. Beth Jeffery and Zethu Mtati were tasked with recreating the late Carolyn Holden’s original choreography, and throughout the opera we were treated to elegant Spanish dancing, complete with castanets.
Michael Williams has managed to herd a very large cast of singers, dancers and extras onto the stage effectively for the rousing crowd scenes. Some smaller details don’t work quite as well, though. During the overture, Don José is seen being executed for the murder he commits at the end of the opera, which seemed to me to be a superfluous detail that adds nothing of value to the opera. During Carmen’s ‘Habanera’ she is handed a watermelon to cut. She then proceeds to feed a fistful to a horny villager who hovers at her feet: an act which comes across as more comical than erotic. Perhaps one could make a crude joke about the allure of Carmen’s melons, but I fear that would be in bad taste.
The young British conductor Tim Murray controls the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and singers with a sure hand, giving excellent support to the soloists. There were only a few brief spots where opening night adrenaline disrupted the ensemble between chorus and orchestra, mostly during quick passages with lots of stage action.
The expanded chorus were magnificent, and created a wall of sound. The Erub Children’s Choir were also outstanding. Both children and adults amazed me with their clear French diction.
Carmen is one of the most enjoyable operas ever written, with instantly recognisable melodies throughout the score. And with a production of this quality, it’s easy to recommend to both newcomers and seasoned opera buffs.
Cape Town Opera’s Carmen runs at the Artscape Opera House until 29 October 2016.