For an opening night, the Riley Smith Hall was remarkably noisy with even the balcony seats almost filled before Opera Society’s most recent venture, Carmen by George Bizet. The story follows the changing romantic allegiances between gypsy woman and dancer, Carmen (played by Bianca von Oppell), Don José (Callum McGregor) and Escamillo (Manuel Ojeda Cabral) in the streets and surrounding hills of Seville. From the moment the orchestra chimed in with the overture at the start of the show, the energy and typical Hispanicism was apparent, and it continued to be so for the next three hours.
Between classics such as the softly and carefully tiptoed ‘Habenera’ and the iconic and lilting ‘Toreador Song’ (which I would recommend you look up and listen to if you don’t see the show; you will recognise them), the cast acted and sang their way through the vivacious highs and lamenting lows of the central love affair. For shining moments of musical clarity and balance, credit is due to the orchestra and strong chorus, particularly at the end of act 3 where, together on stage they conjured a presence beyond their numbers. The percussion invoked the castanets and flamenco of Spain and the violins carried many of the Bizet’s most iconic melodies; someone in front of me even remarked ‘I’d heard all these songs before in cartoons but didn’t realise they were actually from an opera.’
The set, though basic (as is Opera Soc etiquette) conveyed the sense of a Spanish town well enough and provided the characters with three different locations within which to dance, brawl and shriek without distracting from the main action. One thing, however, that did divert my attention somewhat was a bin fire in the second act, which - ahem smoke machine - randomly emitted shots of smoke and instead produced a steady stream of chuckling from my row.
Reminiscent of their 2014 performances of both The Elixir of Love and Ruddigore, the chorus giggled and fawned through any potential romance, of which there was a lot. But this was countered effectively both by Carmen’s fire and independence and the strength of their choral support. Other moments of notable musical success included ‘Melons! Coupons!’ featuring Carmen, Frasquita (played by Philippa Watts) and Mercédès (played by Annalise Hughes), whose voices and movements matched the complicated rhythms and choreography of the scene, set around three crates in the centre of the stage. But the real masterpiece of the show lay in Micaëla’s (Morgana Warren-Jones) solo ‘I say that nothing can frighten me’, in which her soprano was infallible and the emotion tangible.
Two things that jarred slightly, however, was the supposed passing of an entire month with little indication of this having occurred, and the fact that I was always unsure of who to root for between Don José and Escamillo, perhaps due to the difficulty of understanding some of Escamillo’s lyrics. This did not in any way spoil the show but I did feel at times a little lost. All was forgiven though for what Cabral’s accent, being natively Spanish, brought to the show, particularly in the scene where he and Carmen processed around the stage in proper matador attire.
All in all, the combination of a strong chorus, distinct and sanguine lead characters, a proficient orchestra and the familiar arias and recurring ditties of the opera itself made for a fast-paced and memorable production. The trailer promised ‘sexy, sensual and well-performed’ and it didn’t fail to deliver.
Catherine Fleming, Scribe Magazine