There are some pieces of well-known classical music that become linked with adverts and other unrelated activities so strongly that it is hard to think of the music in its own right anymore. It is a tribute to the ongoing popularity of Bizet’s Carmen that you don’t just immediately associate its overture with the spraying of Champagne at Formula 1 races. Carmen consists of a string of foot-tapping melodies, which combined with a plot which is straightforward (by operatic standards), makes it a reliable choice for a group which might include opera first-timers as well as aficionados. The familiarity of many of Carmen’s tunes, however, is a mixed blessing for each new production, as many of the audience will have seen and heard other versions to compare it with. When this opera is good, it’s a crowd-pleaser, but when it’s bad, it’s horrid – it was during a performance of Carmen one time that I noted down the name of the lead tenor in order to make sure I never paid to watch him again!
AN ACCOMPLISHED CAST
In David Freeman’s production, happily, all the principals proved more than worthy of their casting. Rachael Lloyd was fully in command of the requisite vocal gymnastics for the title role. Noah Stewart’s acting was at times rather stylised by comparison, but his voice, while not yet perhaps at its peak, seemed to show influences of Carreras, and he gave an able performance as Don José. Elizabeth Atherton’s pregnancy, although cleverly disguised by her costume, made her slightly less gazelle-like than the usual portrayal of the ingénue Micaela; but her aria, Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante (“I try not to own that I tremble”) was the highlight of an accomplished and sensitive performance. Visually, this staging “in the round” at the Royal Albert Hall had a great deal to recommend it, not least as it enabled the bullring in the last act to be shown on a lower-level stage rather than be imagined off-stage. Robert North’s choreography was impressive throughout, with no obvious division between the singers who danced and specialist dancers. The production also managed to avoid the two things that frequently grate with this childless ex-soldier during Carmen: the movements of male chorus soldiers were passable as military drill, avoiding both goose-stepping and camp-ness, and the children who mimic them were understated, rather than over-acting stage school pupils.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
This was a good value evening out in the rather “cheap and cheerful” environment of the Albert Hall. Personally, though, I would have been happy to pay more to see the same artistes singing in the original French at a smaller venue. Carmen does not translate easily. The rhythms of equivalent French and English phrases are different, and rhythm is crucial in this opera which is based on dance music and makes frequent references to dancing and bullfighting. Because the words in English do not naturally fit the tune, it also seems to make it more difficult for the singers to get the lyrics out. These problems with hearing the diction are compounded by the poor acoustic of the Albert Hall’s less expensive seating areas. The building may have been designed to the highest specification that Victorian engineers could achieve, but that does not compare to the sound quality we are accustomed to in the digital age. The women’s chorus seemed slightly weak in the initial scenes, but this may well have been due to the muffling of the sound as it travelled upwards to the Circle and beyond; even though the capacity audience clearly enjoyed the show, applause at the end was similarly muffled. The Albert Hall’s restaurants are well-served and reasonably priced by London standards, but unless you order interval drinks before curtain up, it is impossible to visit both the bar and the ladies’ during the interval. Now that women probably outnumber men at such events, it is surely time to adjust the facilities accordingly. However, we thoroughly enjoyed our evening, even though I was left feeling that this production would have shone even more had it not been in translation.
Frances Marshall is a solicitor from Hampshire. She has enjoyed popular Italian and French operas for many years.