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Seen and Heard Opera Review



Bizet, Carmen (concert performance): soloists, CBSO, Sakari Oramo, Symphony Hall; Birmingham, 22nd September 2005 (CT)


City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus

Sakari Oramo - conductor

Katarina Karnéus – Carmen

Gordon Gietz – Don José

Geraldine McGreevy – Micaëla

Leigh Melrose – Escamillo

Mary Hegarty – Frasquita

Emma Selway – Mercedes

Jonathan Gunthorpe – Le Dancaïre

Nicholas Watts – Le Remendado

Rhydian Roberts – Morales

Quentin Hayes – Zuniga

Michael Barry – Stage Director


Opening the new CBSO season with arguably the most successful and popular opera in the repertoire, was a move sure to pack the punters in. Indeed they came in their droves, as no doubt they would do again for the repeat performance two evenings later. Yet, while on the face of it, the venture made sound commercial sense, there was always the risk that a work known so intimately by a large and knowledgeable audience, could backfire in a performance that was anything less than entirely gripping.


Michael Barry’s semi-staged setting put the characters into costume, with the action principally in front of the orchestra. Elevated staging behind however allowed for movement of the characters whenever the dancing and access to a central backstage door dictated. Sung in French, the surtitles provided above the stage should have been welcome, except that they necessitated head movements sometimes resembling a vertical tennis match.


Act I got off to a luke warm start with a bright if unscintillating overture, while the opening Seville scene showed young Welsh tenor Rhydian Jones (a local student from the UCE Birmingham Conservatoire and playing Morales) to have a somewhat lightweight voice: he seemed lost, even in the dynamically flattering acoustic of Symphony Hall. Geraldine McGreevy on the other hand, as Micaëla, had no such projection problems; if anything her voice was perhaps too fulsome for the vulnerable nature of the character. She was refreshingly consistent throughout the performance as a whole though and Quentin Hayes in the role of Zuniga was similarly solid in his early showing.


The greatest disappointments lay in the principal characters of Don José and Carmen herself. The wait for Carmen’s first entrance is always an expectant one and Katarina Karnéus, from her very first appearance, simply failed to display the smouldering, seductive presence that can be brought to this famous role by the finest practitioners. Indeed, it soon became apparent that the one- dimensional nature of her acting was to cast something of a pall over the whole opera. Karnéus’s singing whilst always competent, similarly failed to ignite into either passion or eroticism.


Faced with this partner, Gordon Gietz as Don José struggled gallantly to overcome the lack of chemistry that seemed to engulf the proceedings. As the opera progressed there was a feeling that he was genuinely battling to raise the emotional stakes whilst Karnéus remained resolutely unresponsive. If there were any stars on display in the first act, they were the girls of the City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus whose mischievous behaviour in the choir stalls during the changing of the guard, and mimicry of the orchestral trumpet fanfares was beautifully carried off and very amusing.


The lively gypsy song and dance that occurs early in Act II was the first time that the performance genuinely came alive, and whilet the dancers themselves (students drawn from Birmingham Conservatoire) varied somewhat in ability, it was refreshing, (given the dullness of Act One) to see the cast at last creating both visual and musical spectacle. The appearance of Mary Hegarty and Emma Selway in the parts of Frasquita and Mercedes was also engaging, as was subsequently borne out during the card game in Act III.


The great hope though was that the entry of Escamillo (again keenly anticipated) would lift the mediocrity of what had gone before inject much needed pace into the proceedings. Sadly, this was not to be. Leigh Melrose, rigged out in toreador’s jacket and leather trousers, looked as if he had just conducted a bull fight on a Harley Davidson and lacked either the physical stage presence or charisma to bring off this important role with any degree of panache. Stage presence and voice in equal measures are needed to fill out this role successfully, and on this occasion at least neither engaged the audience. The situation was worsened by Melrose’s tendency to fall off the end of phrases, so that his vocal delivery was severely weakened.


And so to the earlier promise of Frasquita and Mercedes, the only two performers on the stage with the spark of chemistry the performance so desperately needed. Their prophetic reading of the cards early in Act Three, foretelling Carmen’s death and their own future good fortune was a delight, though the spell was once again destroyed by Karnéus’s arrival on stage, so great was the negative impact of her presence.


The effort that Gordon Gietz injected into Don José’s pleading with Carmen in the final act was palpable. There was also a notably effective production touch at this point as the choir turned their backs on the action (with the help of a sub-conductor stationed in front of the organ.) Don José’s pleading fell on deaf ears for the final time and he dealt the fatal knife blow to Carmen.


Why so many of the principal singers failed to create any real spark or electricity in this performance was difficult to pinpoint. The results were not lost on the audience though, whose applause was distinctly selective as the singers took their bows, despite the enthusiastic cheers ringing out from the youngsters in the choir stalls. The simple fact remains that the majority of the singers looked and sounded as if they would have preferred to be anywhere else than in Birmingham, even though this was the very first concert of the CBSO’s new season.


Christopher Thomas 


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