By Simon Fearn
By far the least musical part of Durham Opera Ensemble’s Carmen was the audience’s impassioned squealing that greeted the final curtain. There were even a few standing ovations. And rightly so.
DOE’s flagship Gala Theatre production clearly offers something you can’t get in the Assembly Rooms. In terms of sheer spectacle, this was head and shoulders above the rest of student theatre, both in terms of the number of people on stage and director Crispin Lord’s visually inventive, non-naturalistic staging. Lord’s love of large-scale stage action, however, proved to be both an asset and a hindrance. The comically overpopulated smuggler’s hideout was faintly ridiculous, as was the vast amount of people that flooded into Lillas Pastia’s bar at a climactic moment. Where did they all come from? Throughout there was an unfortunate trend to swamp the stage with chorus members at every conceivable opportunity.
Nevertheless, there was a slick professionalism in the blocking of the crowd of Spaniards that perpetually seemed to be milling about the stage. The orchestra provided all you could conceivably want musically, at times providing an incredible lightness of touch which added real depth to the proceedings. In terms of the singing, Emer Acton and Julian Purdy were excellent in supporting roles, and often outshone some of the leads. The chorus in general produced a very rich sound, and it’s a pleasant surprise that such a wide range of operatic talent can be sourced in Durham.
One major drawback to the piece’s professionalism, however, was the somewhat gimmicky decision to employ the services of Gilesgate Primary School’s children’s choir. The rest of the audience seemed scarily delighted at the prospect of small children turning up and murdering Bizet’s music, more often than not completely at random. One of the stranger aspects of the staging was the decision to have incense-waving children and a half-naked Escamillo (James Quitmann) enter the stage from out of nowhere, and promptly walk off again before anybody noticed them. The production reached a new low when the children processed onto the stage during the climatic final act in bull masks, like some weird parody of a nativity scene. One of the smaller boys even attempted to hide behind his friend, and if that doesn’t bring to mind the obligatory primary school play, I don’t know what does.
Aside from the singing, this production’s other real strength was the way Lord and technical director Gabriel Finn manipulated the mood of each act through the lighting and experimental set. Lord talks about the theme of entropy in the opera, and you get a real sense of the decline in the characters and the setting as we move from the idyllic Seville square in Act One through to the bare smuggler’s hideout in Act Three, via the mournful Second Act with its muted lighting and projector screen of someone smoking sultrily.
And speaking of sultriness, Sophia Smith Galen’s Carmen was so good because she did not become a parody of the archetypal femme fatale. It was clear that her practiced techniques of seduction mainly functioned as a means of power. This was highlighted by the performance’s heightened awareness of feminist issues, with both sexes turning on each other in violent ways throughout the first act. Philippe Durrant was less good as Don José, Carmen’s middle-aged, wet blanket of a lover. That said, he did capture his character’s pathetic traits, whilst displaying a real gentleness in his voice at key moments, which complimented his growing aggression.
In terms of Carmen’s ‘greatest hits’, the chorus’s jerky dynamics during ‘Habanera’ made it sound like you were hearing it for the first time, whilst ‘Toreador’ was let down by Quitmann’s disappointingly moderate ego. The only song I would not happily listen to again is that sickeningly saccharine one Don José and Micaëla sing about the former’s mother’s face.
Although there were some moments that were ill advised—and yes, I am thinking of that completely unnecessary children’s choir—this production was a tour de force, stylishly portraying everything we love about DOE. Let’s hope they keep up the good work for next year!
Photograph: Laura Thomlinson