The founding aim of the Oxford Opera Company is to provide a professional opera for Oxford - fronted by professional performers from all over the world, while remaining rooted in the community. This production of Carmen, the company’s second production to date (and their debut at the Playhouse) achieves just this, to stunning effect.
Bizet’s most famous work tells the tale of Jose (Michael Bracegirdle), a soldier whose duties have taken him from the simple village of his childhood to the Big City (in this case, Seville), with its associated corruption and temptation. He keeps in touch with his religious mother via his naive sweetheart, but is coaxed onto a path of crime, decadence and violence by the eponymous Carmen. A seductive, liberated gypsy woman, Carmen holds the attention of all the men she meets, but those she chooses are cursed by her affections. The tale of lust, fate and betrayal uses many recognisable tropes of its era - town vs country, Madonna/whore, duty vs freedom - but ultimately is brought to life by Oxford Opera Company’s passionate central performances.
As Carmen, Hannah Pedley is utterly captivating. She has performed in the same role a number of times for various high-profile companies, but her chemistry with her fellow cast members (particularly Caroline Kennedy and Lise Christensen, as Frasquita and Mercedes, her convincing cronies) speaks to an adaptability which made her feel naturally part of the company, whilst still standing out as the undeniable star. A particularly impressive aspect to her performance, and indeed that of her onstage antithesis Micaela (a no-less passionate Natasha Jouhl), was the fact that every song was note-perfect, even when uttered from a contorted position. Hitting the high-notes while curled up on the ground or slumped in a chair while completely avoiding sounding forced or shrill is, quite literally, a breathtaking feat.
In his post-show speech, founder-director Stuart Pendred emphasised the importance of collaboration for this project, and this is clear from a number of aspects of the production, not least the sheer number of chorus members, taken from a variety of local schools and choirs. That even the smallest member was well-choreographed, tuneful and in time with the others (not forgetting that all the songs were in French!) reflects on the great efforts made, not just by each child, but by a dedicated team behind-the-scenes, whose commitment to the vision of bringing a professional opera to Oxford clearly paid off with this spectacular performance. The other main element to this collaborative endeavour is of course the orchestra, which, under the conduction of Neil Farrow, was truly delightful. From the very outset, the layers of rich sound brought a sometimes playful, sometimes blistering energy to the packed auditorium, filling our ears and our evenings with vigourously-rendered themes.
The next production from this ambitious new company will be La Boheme. I hope that they will opt for multiple performances, rather than teasing us with just the one, as with this show, so that more people have a chance to experience the production. Either way, watch out for the release and grab a ticket while you can!