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SEEN AND HEARD UK OPERA REVIEW
Bizet, Carmen: (opera in four acts 1875). Sung in French.Orchestra, chorus and soloists of the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. Conductor: Clark Rundell. Directed by Stefan Janski. Stage, Set and Costume designer, Francisco Rodriguez-Weil.Royal Northern College of Music. Bruntwood Theatre. 8.12.2010 (RJF)
For me, the twice-yearly staged opera presentations at the RNCM are among the highlights of the year. These productions are staged with the clear intention of providing performance experience that will be vital for those from the School of Opera and Vocal Studies who make it into a professional career in what is, to say the least, a highly competitive environment. The performances are also an ideal opportunity for the College to showcase their most promising students from the variety of undergraduate, postgraduate and Opera Studio courses on offer. As well as opportunity, the staged performances do come with a health warning for the student participants, no holds are barred with the highest standards expected as they are on the professional stage. The singers in these RNCM productions, whether they are members of the chorus or soloists, have the immense benefit of the outstanding and vast experience, as Director, of Stefan Janski, Director of Opera Studies at the college and whose work I have eulogised over the years.
As far as the RNCM productions under Janski are concerned, my admiration of his work is not merely that I do not have to tolerate the wacky, off the wall, ideas of some egoistic directors out in the world of the professional theatre, but concerns the consummate manner he handles his soloists and chorus to maximise their efforts whilst clarifying the story for the audience. With often over sixty chorus members on stage during this production of Carmen, plus the Act One and Four chorus of children, all having an individual role to play, and knowing what and why, is no little achievement. For the audience the sheer visceral thrill of so many young vibrant voices in Bizet’s music made a significant contribution to the success of the evening, as did the sets. The sets for Act 2, at Lillas Pastias’ Inn, and Act 4 at the bullring, both using two heights imaginatively, were much appreciated by the capacity audience. Although set in a later period than Bizet intended, the soldiers being costumed in the dullness of the early Franco years were the only consequences of note other than the wasted space in the programme which might have been better used discussing the French tradition of opera comique and Bizet’s other operatic works.
Recent College productions of Die Fledermaus (see review) and La Belle Hélène (see review) faced the soloists with the nuances of operetta and comedy, these often being even more challenging for young performers than the more normal operatic fare of drama and violence connected with affairs of the heart, or at least libido. With Bizet’s creation we are back to the latter, but the challenges are even greater because Carmen was written, and was performed here, as an opera comique. It is no surprise to me that this was the first time in its thirty-seven year history that the College has presented a production of this dramatic and popular work. When one considers some of the operas presented in that time, and the alumni who have passed through and who now grace the boards at some of the best operatic addresses singing the lead roles of this and other major works, that is something of a surprise. It shouldn’t be. For all the problems faced by students in operetta, those in Bizet’s most popular creation are significantly greater and concern the nature of opera comique, its intermingling of spoken dialogue and sung parts, particularly, as here, when presented in the original language, French. Foreign languages are a core part of the opera courses in the College, but singing in Italian, or in French is straightforward compared with moving constantly between singing and speech whilst maintaining narrative and dramatic cohesion. Expression of emotion is the stock in trade requirement of the opera singer and of the stage actor. In the French opera comique tradition the two have to go hand in hand if the outcome is to be successful and is particularly so in respect of the singers of the two principal roles, the eponymous gypsy and her frustrated lover Don José.
This was the third time that the college has showcased the South African tenor Sipho Fubesi. I admired his acting and singing in the performances of La Belle Hélène this time last year, whilst being less impressed in the performances of Mozart’s last opera La Clemenza di Tito in March (see review). I am pleased to report that in this performance his singing was well up to standard. His voice seems to have strengthened significantly at the bottom and there was plenty of zing at the top that made his well phrased and enunciated Flower Song fully deserving of its applause. How far that vocal challenge inhibited his acting I do not know, but he was late in starting to try to convey Don José’s psychological disintegration from a loving son to a creature of his desires and which is core to the story. I gather he is auditioning as South Africa representative at this year’s BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. His tenor voice is an appealing instrument that has shown significant development during his time at the RNCM. If he were to be successful in appearing at the competition, where the numbers of contestants are being reduced this year due to financial constraints, it would be a notable feather in the College’s cap as already the Welsh contestant is also a RNCM student and under the tutelage of Jeffrey Lawton.
The real star of any performance of Bizet’s opera is the singer of the eponymous role. Kathryn Rudge has a string of College and other awards to her name. I was also greatly impressed by her singing, overall presentation as well as the diversity of programme at the college Gold Award Weekend earlier this year when she was the representative of the school of vocal studies. In La Clemenza di Tito she made the role of Annio the coeval of that of Sesto, both being sung by mezzo-sopranos en travesti and where the former is often seen as the lesser role. The role of Carmen is a much greater challenge and requires more weight of voice and very different acting skills, not least in Act Two when Carmen has to sing and dance seductively for Don José. Miss Rudge was a little tight vocally in the Habanera but by the Séguedille was well into the role with both her singing and acting being first rate. In act two her dance could have been more seductive, a lithesome young woman with an appealing stage presence and natural easy movement, she could perhaps have flaunted Carmen’s innate sexuality more overtly. I recognise that playing the castanet to the beat, concurrent with singing and dancing, are a big demand and I am sure that as the run progresses she will develop into that aspect of the part. Miss Rudge’s singing and acting in Act Four, where it is possible for a lyric mezzo to be strained by the orchestra, was exemplary in colour, tone and expression in conveying the fraught drama of Carmen’s nature and situation. The climax of Carmen’s stabbing, and Don José following suit and then falling on her prostrate body, was an effective curtain. I am sure both principal singers will have a successful professional future whenever they embark on that fateful journey.
Of the other principal singers Laura Sheerin as Micaela was poorly costumed in Act One looking too much an ingénue to have made that simple journey, let alone that in Act Three, to find Don José. Her Act One aria was very nervous and tonally thin, she was much stronger, fuller and convincing in tone in Act Three. As the extrovert Escamillo Bradley Travis tried too hard in his bravura votre toast and paid for it in Act Three with little voice left. Fortunately he got some back for his verse in Act Four, but his voice is still very much a work in progress. I was most impressed by the portrayals of Mercedes and Frasquita by Hanna-Lisa Kirchin and Elisabeth Karani who acted, moved and sang with security and conviction. Likewise, Adam Smith and Thomas Asher’s well-characterised smugglers added a touch of humour to the proceedings. Andrew de Rozario was rather loud in his spoken contribution; more projection and less volume would have been better whilst allowing for more expression.
In charge of the orchestra Clark Rundell paced the drama well and controlled the dynamics with a sure hand always having in mind the singers on stage as well as the drama of the music. There was some wavery wind playing in one entr'acte. There are further performances of the production on Sunday December 12th at 3pm and Tuesday 14th, Thursday 16th and Saturday 18th at 7pm. Catch it while you can, it is worth a journey.
Robert J Farr