Carmen – A Review by George Fleeton

Carmen Tosca National Concert Hall Dublin Reviews by George Fleeton © 2013 [caption id="attachment_32481" align="alignleft" width="150"]George Fleeton George Fleeton[/caption] Ellen Kent’s operas have now become all things to all men and women. No one in these islands works as hard as she does to tour popular operas annually to so many venues. For example, her current Tosca will have been to 24 theatres, between February 05 and May 02, from Brighton to Richmond, via Dublin and Cork. Travelling with it is Carmen: 50 venues in three months, including Dublin, Belfast, Limerick and Cork. Given that most of her principals are singing in both operas, and that conductor Nicolae Dohotaru and his Chisinau Philharmonic Orchestra from Moldova are performing and travelling non-stop, opera-by-opera, venue-by-venue, this is a phenomenal work load, unparalleled anywhere in my experience of opera. Kent has been doing this for twenty years, and she first brought her operas, and ballets, to Belfast’s Waterfront Hall over 15 years ago. Does such intense touring risk compromising the quality of the productions? Kent is a canny entrepreneur. All her titles are familiar to a wider public. What I call her ‘grandstand’ productions are excellent introductions, to this high art form, for wary opera virgins, while opera veterans can bask in their Verdi and Puccini comfort zones. As The Times commented, several years ago, “hers is the Las Vegas of opera”. Is there a downside? Yes, routine and road weariness, and it shows. Most of Ellen Kent’s productions that I have seen over the years do talk up the spectacle on stage: the sets are massive but practical, the costumes are always in period, the original language rules in every case and there might be an Andalucian stallion in Carmen, a golden eagle in Tosca, Afghan hounds in Rigoletto, at certain venues, and handsome souvenir brochures at all venues. Carmen (Dublin, March 30) was beset by that road weariness and routine. It lacked dramatic conviction and a credible Seville atmosphere; the French was often poorly enunciated; some of the singing was off-key; the orchestra sounded tired and lightweight; and there was an awkward and distracting scene drop between Acts 1 and 2. As Carmen, Nadezhda Stoianova was more than adequate and comfortable in this demanding role, which she has been singing for Ellen Kent for about ten years, and of course Bizet kept some of his most beautiful music in this opera for Micaëla, sung here by Maria Tonina. [There are some superb recordings of Carmen, going back for decades. Anything with Risë Stevens or Giulietta Simionato is worth having (the great Simionato died in Rome three years ago, one week before her 100th birthday). Victoria de los Angeles, with Thomas Beecham (EMI Classics, 1959) is gold standard. But I recommend the Callas recording of 1964 (also EMI Classics) – a personal favourite. Callas was at the end of her career then, and the voice had deepened sufficiently to make this an unexpected pleasure]. The following night (March 31) Maria Tonina sang Ellen Kent’s Tosca, and the contrast with the Carmen of the night before was remarkable. The energy and the engagement of all in this performance made for a memorable Tosca. Even the elder statesman of Kent’s tours, baritone Vladimir Dragos, 70 years old, who has been singing the role of Scarpia since the Moldovans first came over here twenty years ago, still makes an impact. But Tonina made this opera her own, catching every shifting mood of Puccini’s magisterial music. Routine was nowhere to be seen and every vestige of tour weariness had dissipated. Amazing. (As for Tosca recordings, anything involving Renata Tebaldi or Mirella Freni are today’s collector’s items). Ellen Kent returns to Ireland, for a week in October, with three operas, but there are no Belfast dates: Aida (Cork, 22nd; Limerick, 24th; Dublin, 26th); Nabucco (Cork, 23rd; Limerick, 25th) and La Bohème (Dublin, 27th). Next Arts reviews on Down News will include Leeds-based Northern Ballet’s production of The Great Gatsby; and Zeffirelli’s 1982 film La Traviata, which opens the 13th Belfast Film Festival in this bicentenary year of Verdi’s birth. George Fleeton will also be introducing The Glenn Miller Story (1954), in the Queen’s Film Theatre Belfast, on May 12.  ]]>