The characters and music of Carmen are so strong that’s it’s pretty much impossible not to be swept up by the ‘bohémienne’. In this production by the Welsh National Opera, it’s the second act that really pulls you in. It’s atmospheric, with beautiful costumes – including Carmen’s appropriately sumptuous bustier - and the performances are dramatic, sexy and funny.The second act works so well on this occasion in part because it’s only when you see Carmen both in contrast to the stiff, loutish soldiers and in companionship with her fellow gipsies that Kristin Chávez’s performance makes sense. She sings quite loosely in the first act, jarring with the other performers, however in the second act you realise it’s a quite deliberate way to flaunt her freedom and resistance to convention.
Once Chávez begins to dance with the tricksy characters Frasquita and Mercédès, the feeling of discomfort she elicited in the first act transforms into a source of muscular enchantment.The whole chorus is wonderful; the children are energetic and use great facial expressions; as Micaëla, Jessica Muirhead is crisp and eloquent in her French pronunciation; and Michael Clifton-Thompson and Huw Llywelyn are relaxed and fabulously entertaining as the bantering pair of bandits Dancaïre and Remendado.
Unfortunately, Gwyn Hughes Jones’ rather wet portrayal of Don José lets the production down a little. This weasely Don José makes sense at first as he is swayed by two women in turn, but lacks credibility when you remember he killed a man because of a game of cards. And when it comes to the second half, the passion and flare of temper of a man so possessive of Carmen that he would rather kill her than let her go, simply isn’t there.In the final confrontation Carmen is shaking with rage and resolve whereas Don José seems apathetic and kills Carmen more as an afterthought than as the resolution to an ever-increasing threat.
To end on a high, however, praise must be given to the orchestra, and the exceedingly physical and enthusiastic conductor, James Southall. Being quite close to the front, I couldn’t help but notice the rather wonderful double bass players in particular, whose delicate playing raised smiles and aroused fear with their deep, warm tones.This is an enthralling production, despite its weaknesses, that’ll leave you with a lingering urge to dramatically declare everything you do.