Nowadays, smoking has thankfully gone out of fashion, but in the 1870s a gypsy cigarrera enthralled audiences as the eponymous protagonist of Bizet's opera Carmen, a tale of love, seduction and, ultimately, tragedy. Tonight's production by Ellen Kent left me conflicted.
Set in Seville, the story shapes a love triangle between the fiery Carmen, a naïve soldier, and a toreador. Bizet's score ignites feeling: melody, rhythm and harmony unite to stir the soul. Romanian mezzo Liza Kadelnik, who played Carmen, and the singers who played Don Jose, Micaela and Escamillo the toreador, all sang beautifully, giving life to favourites like the 'Habanera' and baritone aria 'The Toreador's song'. Their voices were also compatible with each other in duets. The orchestra took a while to get into their stride, and I would have liked more volume and richness to feel completely enveloped in sound.
The opera was sung in French, with English surtitles in green set high above the stage; while this took some getting used to (bring your glasses!) overall I think it improved accessibility. The dancing was genteel, and I was waiting and waiting for a bit of chutzpah and fire, which never came.
Tonight also featured some highly publicised animals. I'm not sure how I feel about animals on stage; Caspian the 'majestic Andalucian stallion' and a donkey who appeared with him looked well cared for, although I certainly hope that the rider's whip was only a prop. Regardless, they didn't add much - and actually felt a bit jarring - to a plot that works on building momentum. The audience seemed to enjoy them, though.
If Carmen were a cigar, it would be the equivalent of a full-bodied Cuban, but tonight we were offered an own brand that appeared to have been produced somewhere in the Home Counties. If I had paid the top tier price of over 40 pounds for a ticket, plus another fiver for a programme, I doubt I would have found this to be value for money. However, the vocal talent of the main performers was a redeeming feature that made an overall enjoyable evening.