The ‘total theatre’ concept essentially amounts to a concert performance with dance - there was no set to speak of, but in the ornate surroundings of the main town hall this didn’t seem to matter very much. The dancing, from Perm and from local youth groups, was exciting and inventive, the choreography blending influences from different traditions to great effect. The nightclub scene was especially enjoyable. Obvious planning was put into the dance, and not inconsiderable gymnastic skill demonstrated; and there was a bonus of small children injecting extra liveliness into proceedings from time to time. A pity, then, that owing to the layout of the Town Hall, visibility was restricted for most of the audience: when there was so much going on, it would have been nice to have seen more of it. Try to get a seat at the front.
The opera was sung in English translation, which does result in some lines of breathtaking inanity (“Do you know Don Jose?”; “The people he’s with haven’t arrived yet.”) Translating opera sacrifices so much of the unity between the vocal and orchestral scores, and it seemed unnecessary in a production involving many different nationalities.
The music is very famous – you’d probably recognise it even if you’ve never heard the opera. It’s a variant of classical, with lots of brass. The orchestra played with a professionalism which belied their age, and provided a pleasingly full accompaniment to proceedings on stage. The East Oxford Community Choir provided a tight and enthusiastic chorus: an excellent support for the soloists.
Frida Osterberg carries the title role very well; her first big song is a delight. Plummy-voiced and confident, she looked every bit capable of driving an obsessed man to madness. Carmen’s friends, played by Rebecca Hiller and Suzanna Purkis, had good voices and vivid personalities. Louise Wayman, with excellent voice control, makes a good job of playing the wholesome girl-next-door Michaela.
Don José, played by Justin Lavender, was out of place simply because of his age. OK, he was good, but should be, having around 20 years advantage over most of the rest of the cast. His friends, played by James Birchall and John Herford, had solid voices without really capturing the imagination. Quentin Hayes, (also older than the rest of the cast but more appropriately for his character) as the leather-trousered Escamillo was hilarious, his Covent Garden experience evident, and he stole the show a little.
The result of all this was an uplifting – and fun – community production of a lovely opera, supplemented by diverse dance traditions fused into a mutually intelligible whole.