Nabucco & Carmen

Opera: Puccini's drama and seduction from Bizet
Ellen Kent International & Chisinau National Philharmonic Orchestra, New Theatre, Thu December 6th 2007 - Sat December 8th 2007

December 9, 2007
Carmen, Friday 7th December 2007

You can’t help enjoying Carmen because of the wonderful, exhilarating music, with its dazzling energy, blood-stirring rhythms, and gloriously hummable melodies. It really makes you want to leap out of your seat and dance in the isles that curious Spanish dance where everyone appears to be sniffing their own armpits.

This Carmen has pleasingly lavish production values, with scrumptious costumes, proper choreographed dances, and even special guest appearances by a sweet little donkey and a stunningly beautiful black, shiny, trained stallion. This will clue you into the ethos of Ellen Kent Productions – that redoubtable lady’s avowed mission is to “bring opera to everyone”. Everyone likes Carmen, everyone likes animals, and everyone likes a good show. So that’s what we’ve got: a barn-storming, foot-tapping romp, spectacular to look at and (mostly) delightful to listen to.

The female singers of the Chisinau National Opera, who form the bulk of this company, are almost without exception exquisitely beautiful – notably ravishing were Irina Vinogradova as the sweet goody two-shoes Micaela, blonde goddess Maria Tsonina and raven-haired beauty Galina Bernaz as Carmen’s two friends Frasquita and Mercedes – and they are also excellent singers, Tsonina providing the angelic top-notes that mezzo-sopranos can’t reach. A non-Moldovan leading lady has been imported into the company for this season in the shape of Heather Shipp, who was last night’s Carmen (tonight’s will be Zarui Vardanean). She was a lusty, salty, sexy Carmen from her first appearance in her slightly off-white working undies, and she immediately took command of the stage with the fiery and dangerous charisma of a really Bad Woman, her predatory instincts settling unerringly on the hapless Don Jose, and making it entirely credible that he would abandon his girl, his duty, his comrades, his whole life essentially, to go scampering about the hills with Carmen and her bunch of bad-guys. Her attitude was perfect and her voice possessed honeyed warmth and sweetness, but was a little short on power, which meant that she was sometimes swamped by the orchestra.

Last night’s Don Jose was Irakli Grigali, and he was outstanding, completely convincing as the bewitched, bamboozled and betrayed soldier. Physically he was perfect for the part, a thick-set, very dark, almost Basque appearance, a straightforward peasant morality – I thought he was better than Placido Domingo, because he retained a kind of stoic dignity and sympathy instead of being pathetic and fawning. His passion for Carmen fought a titanic struggle with his better nature, and eventually won; this was a splendid piece of acting, and his voice expressively conveyed tenderness, anguish and baffled rage. These performances lifted the production above the commonplace and made it powerful, raw, moving. Not everyone in the company achieved this level of realism – notably the cigarette factory girls, whose brawl in the first act was pitifully half-hearted and well-bred – the girls I was at convent school with would have made a better job of pulling hair and scratching faces.

The fascinatingly unreliable sound system at the New Theatre behaved itself well for most of the night, creating only one strange booming noise which fortunately did not occur at a crucial point. Worth risking the ticket price.

December 7, 2007
Nabucco, Thursday 6th December 2007

I think I've lost faith in opera, or at least in what I thought opera was on its way to becoming when I was a music student in the 90s. Then there was a feeling that uninspired directing and dodgy performing had become unacceptable and that better acting and realism, or something more like it, was on the way in. This production was more like a throw-back to opera's Stone Age.

While Verdi's Nabucco is a good opera, it isn't among the greatest in the repertoire. The book is not engaging throughout, and the arrangement doesn't do much to help. Notably some of the arias aren't particularly satisfying dramatically. However, the Chisinau Orchestra conducted by Nicolae Dohotaru seemed to 'get it' although they often played at a volume that drowned out singers entirely. There were more than a few bum notes among the cast. Some of the singers were so casual they didn't even try to hit many of their high notes – as if we wouldn't notice!

The set was so large and bulky it left little room for the multitude – plus a live horse – to aimlessly mill about, the blocking was two-dimensional, the costumes were shabby and the acting.... What acting? It seemed more like watching opera from the turn of the 20th Century rather than the 21st; more like a parody of an opera than the real thing. Some of the staging was illogical and shocking – and sometimes hilarious. Among the many choice examples: characters cluelessly stood around while their temple was being ransacked and burned to the ground by the vengeful King Nabucco. They simply didn't know what to do with themselves.

However, it would be fair to mention that a number of Nabucco's arias, performed by baritone Boris Materinco in impressively oversized shoulder pads, were really quite good. And the highlight of the evening was the famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves which never fails to satisfy.

I genuinely wish the group success; I would simply say get rid of the gimmicks and schlocky staging.
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