Longborough Carmen review

A TRIUMPH AGAINST FATE

CARMEN
Longborough Festival Opera ***

The resourcefulness of Longborough Festival Opera has already become the stuff of legends. Last year it coped with pandemic restrictions by erecting a big top, seating socially distanced and acoustically superb, for its productions. This year it got off to a flying start back in the main house with Wagner's Siegfried and Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, but then the resurgence of Covid hit its current Carmen presentation.
Did Longborough throw in the towel and ring down the curtain? Did it heck as like! Seven out of ten principal roles were covered by understudies for the run's opening night in a semi-staged performance, but then on Tuesday we saw the whole show as originally conceived, the seven understudies now moving so confidently about their business, and with the musical values under conductor Jeremy Silver so consistent with LFO's famed delivery with its magnificent Festival Orchestra.
All the covers slipped so smoothly into their roles, with Bernadette Johns an imposing Carmen, Matthew Siveter an engaging Escamillo, with refreshingly more genial engagement than cliched swagger, and Satriya Krisna's Don Jose, who grew from fumbling awkwardness to well-rounded assertiveness in his desire to possess Carmen, body and soul. Their final scene together was one of huge tension and ultimate frenzy. Pity some of the audience found his Ripperish stabbings of her comical.
But that was the whole problem with this production. It began almost a la Whitehall farce, soldiers lewdly parading the lengths their measuring-tapes could reach, wenches coming on to bridle at the men, the whole scene in Lillas Pastia's tavern played for laughs (apparently the locals were watching soccer on the telly in this modern-day production). Lillas Pastia himself was a brilliant stage-presence, the cheekily camp James Gribble, at one point scooting across backstage on a smugglers' supermarket trolley. Improvised spoken dialogue was inaudible in its lack of projection, and what was the point of the two microphones, left and right on the extended stage?
But then at last the tragedy began to take hold, and not before time, but beyond much of the comprehension of many of the audience, and all the pantomime fell apart, but too late.
Amidst all this farrago, however, was at least one stroke of genius from director Mathilde Lopez amidst the many questionable interjections. She had the idea of bringing Don Jose's much referred-to mother to life, having her pray at a shrine to the Virgin, appearing as if crucified as he throws away his last chance of salvation, and Maria Jagusz, herself an opera-singer with probably more years of experience than anyone else in this company could hold a candle to (appropriate analogy in the context of her gripping performance), brought an hypnotic, slow-moving dumb-show to her portrayal of this anguished mother. She was also cast as an old lady, tuning in to the radio for a rickety broadcast of Carmen as the opera began, and cleaning the floor at the end to wipe up Carmen's blood.
Jeremy Silver's chorus were taut and tight, perennially on the move, and among the supernumeraries, Angharad Watkeys with her glasses perched above her brow was a continually engaging presence as Frasquita, not least in stellarly crowning the ensembles with top notes.
Music and movement five stars. Direction far fewer.
Christopher Morley

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