27 February 2013

Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall

If Swan Lake is the definitive ballet then Carmen is the definitive opera. It has the story and the songs to justify that claim.

I have seen a few very different versions of Carmen in recent years, including two dance versions, and this was the chance to see it performed as a "normal" opera.

Well, not that normal. This was at the Royal Albert Hall and I expected, and saw, a performance that put a lot of emphasis on the staging to make a spectacular show. This is the first time I have seen people juggling fire in Carmen.

I had not given it much thought beforehand, perhaps I should, so it was a surprise to discover that it was sung in English and there were no sur-titles.

I was on the uppermost level, the cheap seats, which gave a good view of the stage at the expense of some difficulty in hearing some of the singers. There were no problems listening to Don José whose voice was loud, clear and beautiful. He was the star of the show.

Carmen herself was not bad either and she had the advantage of looking like a gypsy seductress with black shoulder length wavy hair and head-turning looks. 

The stage was set in the round, understandable given the shape of the Royal Albert Hall, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra filling a wedge to one side. They were superb too.

Perhaps it was the distraction of what was happening on the stage or I was just lucky to be sitting amongst educated people but the annoyances were less than usual. There was some whispering but that was all there was and these days that is remarkable. The lack of sweet wrappers was much appreciated.

The lack of sur-titles and the distance from the stage made some of the lines hard to follow (not with the impeccable Don José) so it was useful that I knew the story quite well. There were some minor liberties made with the story due to the restrictions of the staging, i.e. the difficulty of reconfiguring it to make different scenes, and they may also have caused me to lose the thread at times.

Carmen was at its best when it filled the stage with people and, literally, played to the crowd. It was less successful in the quieter moments when the distance was more of a problem but even then the delightful music from the orchestra shone through and the opera never seriously flagged.

I am not sure that I would rush back to the Royal Albert Hall to see another opera there as it takes an opera with the richness of Carmen to fill the large space, and there are not too many like that.

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