Editorial Board

London Editor:
(London UK)
Melanie Eskenazi

Regional Editor:
(UK regions and Worldwide)
Bill Kenny

Bill Kenny

Music Web Webmaster:

Len Mullenger


Classical Music Web Logs

Search Site With Google 

WWW MusicWeb

MusicWeb is a subscription-free site
Clicking  Google adverts on our pages helps us  keep it that way

Seen and Heard International Opera Review

Bizet,  Carmen at Dalhalla : Sweden (Premiere) Estonian National Opera Boys’ Chorus; Estonian National Opera Chorus; Estonian National Opera OrchestraConductor: Ginataras Rinkevicius 10.8.2007  (GF)

Stage Director: Albert-André Lhereux
Set Designer: Liina Keevallik
Costume Designer: Gerard Audier
Light Designer: Neeme Joe
Choreography: Claudia Shevchenko


Carmen – Anzhelina Schvachka (mezzo-soprano)
Don José – Marian Talaba (tenor)
Escamillo – Hannu Niemelä (baritone)
Micaëla – Heli Veskus (soprano)
Frasquita – Valentina Taluma (soprano)
Mércèdes – Juuli Lill (mezzo-soprano)
Dancaïère – Villu Valdma (tenor)
Remendado – Mart Madiste (tenor)
Moralès – Rene Soom (baritone)
Zuniga – Priit Volmer (bass)
Lillas Pastia – Mati Vaitmaa (baritone)

For several years now the Estonian National Opera have been a regular Guest Company at the large outdoor arena Dalhalla, just north of Lake Siljan in Central Sweden. So far they have presented productions from their home stage in Tallinn, adapted for the large stage and the natural conditions at Dalhalla with its high, rough rock walls and the blue-green lake surrounding the stage on three sides. There has been some criticism concerning this and the management of Dalhalla and the National Opera have obviously listened, resulting in two brand new productions being premiered at Dalhalla – moreover on two consecutive days, which is a feat indeed of any company and especially a company of the size of the Estonian. First out was Carmen, which was given not in the original opera-comique version, i.e. with spoken dialogue, but in Ernest Guiraud’s adaptation with the recitatives he composed after Bizet’s premature death, which is just as well when performed with a cast of non-French speakers. The sets, a number of all-purpose wooden screens or constructions that could be made to represent anything, a couple of drawbridges, functioning as the door of the cigarette factory in the first act or the entrance to the bull-fight arena in the last. Centre-stage a round elevation, which was used for certain central scenes, most spectacularly the final scene when Don José stabs Carmen to death. I will come back to this in a moment or two. Lighting was inventively used and each act had its own colour. Since there is no curtain at Dalhalla, changes of scene had to be made in the open and to divert attention a group of flamenco dancers in colourful costumes performed choreographies with hand-clapping and foot-stamping, making use of not only the generous stage space but also the gangway between the orchestral pit and the water that separates the stage from the auditorium. The audience took this feature to their hearts and it was a fresh approach, borne out of necessity, maybe, but giving some local colour, albeit nothing to do with plot. Their first appearance was actually during the second half of the orchestral prelude, the fateful music that forebodes the tragic end of the opera, and the only purpose then was, I believe, to provide those visitors with little experience of opera something to catch their interest.

At Dalhalla the fury of the elements can sometimes be at odds with the requirements for the stage. On the premiere Friday it had been drizzling almost constantly; it stopped in time for the performance to begin but about twenty minutes into the first act it started again and continued until the interval which took place after Act II. The drizzle may have been one reason that the performance took so long to ignite – it felt, to be frank, long-winded. The first act plays in a sun-drenched square in Spain and people should be a bit lazy but here it seemed that they were influenced by the terrible heat that hit the whole Mediterranean area this summer. There was something somnambulist around much of the act. The street-urchins managed to blow some fresh air into the action, but not until Carmen herself appeared there was real life. It was a premiere and everything hadn’t quite settled, there were also some problems with the lighting but I also believe the vast stage was a problem. A lot of people in beautiful costumes seemed to be strolling around for no specific purpose and also during more private scenes, e.g. the Micaëla – Don José duet in the first act and the long scene between Carmen and Don José in Act II, there was much running about and, which I seem to have experienced too often lately: singers who are supposed to carry through a dialogue, something intimate, are standing at each side of the stage, 40 metres apart, sometimes even turning their backs to each other. We may be living in an era of lack of contact – is that the reason for such stagings?

This was one side of the coin; on the reverse side were a lot of lively acting and the members of the chorus were indeed busy for most of the time in various disguises. The third act opened spectacularly with some of the smugglers arriving per rowing-boats on the lake and unloaded their contraband goods before the eyes of the audience. Not many stages can manage that. In Act II, at Lillas Pastia’s inn, there is always a lot of drinking – as it should be – but I felt they went a bit over the top and made too much of a parody. Lieutenant Zuniga, excellently impersonated by the lean and plastic Priit Volmer throughout the performance, skilfully acted in various degrees of intoxication but when he returned after closing-time he was so stoned that he fell headlong to the ground before Carmen’s feet – which raised a great deal of laughter – but I think the situation, with the duel with Don José coming up and the degraded corporal’s whole life changes, is so serious that it shouldn’t be made comedy of.

I mentioned Carmen’s death and will return to it, since it was an unusual grip. The whole performance was traditionally realistic and consequently Carmen should have fallen to the ground and died but she remained standing, finally with both arms stretched out as though she had been crucified – killed for her love of someone else (in this case Escamillo) as Jesus Christ was killed for his love of man. The stage director has another explanation: Carmen has been delivered from evil and the lighting of the scene should give the impression of the Ascension! Whatever the interpretation it was a kind of revelation, even though it suddenly changed the perspectives and turned the opera into a mystery play.

So much for the staging. I have mentioned the chorus as actors and the singing was uniformly good. Estonians – just as Swedes – are famous for their choral tradition. I felt some of the orchestral playing undernourished or maybe unbalanced. The acoustics at Dalhalla have a tendency to stress the brass and the percussion while the strings sounded thin. The great climaxes were however powerful and Rinkevicius kept things going, though somewhat laxer than I would have wished. The minor solo roles were all taken by regular members of the Estonian company and they made what could be expected with an especially fine smugglers’ quintet. Individually Juuli Lill as Mércèdes sported a full and expressive mezzo-soprano and she would no doubt be a good Carmen, too. Priit Volmer as Zuniga had a rough-hewn bass full of character and Rene Soom sang well as Captain Moralès. Micaëla was sung by Heli Veskus, who is the company’s leading soprano since 2001. Among her roles were mentioned in the programme Mimi, Desdemona and an “impassioned and flowering Tosca”. This was exactly what se sounded like and I would love to hear her in those roles but as Micaëla she felt miscast. This young innocent girl is a shy, weak creature and should be sung by a lyric, light soprano. Ms Veskus was all too heavy and her vibrato under strain sometimes disfigured the phrases. There is no doubt that she is an excellent singer per se. The Finnish baritone Hannu Niemelä has a long international career behind him and he has stage presence but today his voice is too frayed and wobbly to be enjoyable. He also lacked heft in the lowest register – Escamillo needs a bass-baritone to make his mark. I have heard Niemelä on several occasions, both in Savonlinna and Helsinki and some years ago he was a splendid Iago in the Finnish National Opera’s Otello. He will be Rigoletto in Dalhalla tomorrow and hopefully he is better suited to that character role. Both Micaëla and Escamillo are however also peripheral characters and solo-wise Carmen stands or falls with the main protagonists. In this case two young Ukrainian guests contributed greatly to make the performance memorable. Tenor Marian Talaba had a well produced mainly lyrical voice but with power enough to carry through the dramatic high-spots. His acting was rather rudimentary but he sang with an intensity that a Placido Domingo wouldn’t be ashamed of, and he utilized his lyrical capacity to make Don José a vulnerable and basically mislead individual. At times he could be too lachrymose and over-emphatic but his Flower song was subtle and sensitive and he took the final note pianissimo with a crescendo. He didn’t, as prescribed, make a de-crescendo back to pianissimo but compared to many tenors who simply belt out the tone at a screaming fortissimo this was a wonder of nobility. And his compatriot Anzhelina Schvachka looked and acted the many-faceted role as Carmen to the manner born. A splendid actress she stole the limelight whenever on stage. Her famous arias, the Habanera and the Seguidilla, in the first act were both done with the seductive phrasing that would have hooked even stronger characters than Don José, but to my mind she was even better in the long second act scene at Lillas Pastia’s inn and, not least, the card scene in act three where she each times get the black cards symbolizing death. Her lower register was a little weak, though, and diminished the impact of primitive animal power, that also is part of this character. The final duet was thrilling with both singers at their best.

As so often with as complicated a thing as an opera performance there were swings and roundabouts and, to change the metaphor, the ups were not numerous enough to compensate for the downs but, in spite of the drizzle, I still felt some mental sunlight when driving home in the black night.

Two years ago I pointed out that with so many international visitors Dalhalla should have subtitles not only in Swedish but in English as well. Now they have – product development to be grateful for.


Göran Forsling


Back to the Top     Back to the Index Page

Seen and Heard
, one of the longest established live music review web sites on the Internet, publishes original reviews of recitals, concerts and opera performances from the UK and internationally. We update often, and sometimes daily, to bring you fast reviews, each of which offers a breadth of knowledge and attention to performance detail that is sometimes difficult for readers to find elsewhere.

Seen and Heard publishes interviews with musicians, musicologists and directors which feature both established artists and lesser known performers. We also feature articles on the classical music industry and we use other arts media to connect between music and culture in its widest terms.

Seen and Heard aims to present the best in new criticism from writers with a radical viewpoint and welcomes contributions from all nations. If you would like to find out more email Regional Editor Bill Kenny.


Search Site  with FreeFind


Any Review or Article

Contributors: Marc Bridle, Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling,  Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, Raymond Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)

Site design: Bill Kenny 2004