Longborough Festival Opera, in the heart of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, has been in existence now for thirty years, and this season’s programme of productions is a triumph. Emerging thankfully from the Covid shutdown, to flourish again, it is bursting with talent, enthusiasm and energy. The beautiful purpose-built opera-house seats five hundred, and its acoustics are clear and sensitive. It features statues of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner on its parapet, worthies who preside benignly.
This new production of Carmen directed by Mathilde Lopez, has an international cast, and is set very much in the present day. There are impeccable performances in the lead roles of Don José (Dutch tenor Peter Gijsbertsen) and Carmen herself (mezzo-soprano Margaret Plummer who has been a principal artist at the Vienna State Opera for the past seven years). This is Plummer’s Longborough debut and I am sure they will want to invite her back to perform in some of their Wagner productions in the future. She has a powerful voice, and commanding stage presence. Gijsbertsen is a very good actor as well as a fine tenor. He really gave the impression of a man who is going to pieces under the stress of his situation.
Well-known British baritone Benedict Nelson stepped in at the last minute to sing the role of the bragging bull-fighter Escamillo, and did a good job although he had to use the score. He made a good pair with the forceful Plummer. In the role of Michaela, Don José’s unwanted admirer, young English soprano Jennifer Witton drew spontaneous applause with a voice that truly thrills. Despite a costume that made her look ridiculously frumpy, she put over the really deep romantic resonance of this role, which adds a third tragedy to the already tragic plot. She has already won the GSMD gold medal and she must have a big future.
This production made visible a character who plays a very important part in the story yet is never usually seen – Don José’s mother. Performed in dumb-show by Maria Jagusz, she is to some extent a stereotype of the old, headscarved Spanish woman, spending her life doing housework or praying to a statue of the Virgin Mary, but this makes the glimpses of her somehow even more tragic and pathetic. How will she endure the execution of her beloved son? Won’t it kill her too?
This whole production is an exercise in de-familiarization. The English-language libretto by Amanda Holden makes you feel this is a new story, while the design, sets and costumes are modern and functional, with no concessions to picturesque prettiness or touristy Hispanic frills. Extractor fans and large rubbish bins feature in the sets, while the costumes look as if this is a rehearsal. Only Escamillo wears something that looks like a bullfighter’s outfit. The original audience didn’t like Carmen, finding its working-class characters and factory setting disconcerting, and this production seems to be trying to reproduce their experience.
Jeremy Silver conducts the fine festival orchestra with flair and flexibility, rising to the challenges of this exciting score, and every one of the players deserves plaudits.
With its wonderful setting for a lavish and leisurely picnic during the evening, in the lavender-filled garden surrounded by views of the green Gloucestershire hills, Longborough Festival Opera is altogether a treat, and the audience who make the pilgrimage from far and wide find it well worth the trip.