CARMEN performed by Ukrainian National Opera of Kyiv directed by Ellen Kent at the New Theatre Oxford.

        The fact that Carmen was not a success at its first performance in 1875 is a sign of how much we have changed in our attitudes to art. What was wrong with it? Newness, that was all. Sheer newness. Working-class characters, a wild sexy heroine, gypsies, smugglers and a hero who deserts from the army did not pleases audiences in the Belle Époque, when Paris had suffered severely in the Franco-Prussian War, and they were looking for a glimpse of elegance and high life, the things they had lost. Since then, it has of course become one of the most popular operas in the world. 

    None of the disreputable elements are played down in this production and when the girls from the Seville cigarette factory get into a fight in Act One, they go for each other like wildcats, flooring the unfortunate soldiers whose job it is to police and restrain them. I just wonder if their white dresses are a little too fancy for factory girls.

     Carmen is sung by Irina Sproglis, an Ukrainian mezzo soprano who has also been appearing in the title role in Madame Butterfly. Her voice is lustrous, her movements graceful and she acted the role in a suitably sultry manner, pacing the stage like a panther. “If you love me, beware!” she sings to the dutiful soldier Don José, who is not used to women like this, arousing in him a strange longing for the feral and forbidden. In the rôle of Don José, the Romanian tenor Sorin Lupu was expressive, lyrical and assured. He brought a certain pathos to the rôle, which is essential for the awful ending of the story to appear tragic, rather than merely brutal.

     In the part of Escamillo we had Racovita Petru, a baritone from Moldovan, who brought lots of glamour and charisma to the character of the bull-fighter (toreador is of course a word that Bizet or his source Mérimée made up, the Spanish being either “torero” or “matador”). He appears in Act 2 and is hailed as pop star, his gaudy sequined costume rivalling Elvis Presley. Carmen knows from the first time she sets eyes on him that they are soul-mates, and of course she must shake off Don José, whom she had only taken as her lover in recompense for him releasing her when she got arrested. Everyone else can see this is inevitable, but not poor Don José.

     In this production, the rôle of Micaela, the girl in love with Don José, is taken by Elena Dee, who sang the starring rôle in Tosca only yesterday. Nature has given her voice wings. She brought an unusual depth of feeling and warmth to her rôle, usually a poignant one, and this made the opera more balanced. Of course Don José should have married Micaela but that is not his fate. As the ominous words of the fortune-telling scene emphasize, L’Amour has a sound that is awfully close to La Mort – Death.

     The dramatic atmosphere of this scene in the gypsy camp would have been improved if the company had used the backdrop of mountains shown in the photograph in the programme. Unfortunately they seem to have left it in the van, and we had the same set for all four scenes – the identical set used yesterday for Tosca – which can represent many things, but not a mountain range. 

    The pageantry of the final Act, at the bullring, when crowds arrive to see the matadors’ ceremonial parade, was well presented, with the chorus milling around in colourful costumes. These are scenes and characters that Goya would have painted, and the music under conductor Nicolae Dohotaru positively fizzled with excitement and tension. Carmen, like the bull, knows what is going to happen to her, but she is proud and refuses to run away. She represents wildness and anarchy. Don José represents stability and commitment and also men’s urge in many cases to own women. The struggle continues.

     At the end of the opera, the cast held up the national flag of Ukraine and their national anthem was played. The response of the audience was very warm.

     This was an outstanding production and the tour deserves to be a resounding success. You can see future performances of this production at Dartford, Torquay, Cardiff, Bromley, Sheffield and Edinburgh. Booking links and schedule are all on the Ellen Kent Opera website. I wish all the members of Ukrainian National Opera all success and the luck they will need to cope with the problems currently facing them.                                                                                     Julia Gasper.