Monday, 24 January 2011

BIZET'S CARMEN / Singapore Lyric Opera / Review

Singapore Lyric Opera
Esplanade Theatre
Friday (21 January 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times
on 24 January 2011 with the title
"Bravo for a unique Carmen"

Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen is so popular and familiar that it runs the risk of being a museum piece, endlessly rehashed and flogged to the benefit of the box office. Not so, the Singapore Lyric Opera’s fourth production of Carmen in its short history, which presented new vistas while remaining true to its original spirit.

As the rousing Prélude was being played, Sophie Fournier’s Carmen and Lee Jae Wook’s Don Jose appeared on stage sealing a love pact in blood, even before a single word was uttered. This mere act alone was to pre-determine its slightly modified but nonetheless fatal ending some three hours later.

In between were some of the best moments to be witnessed on the Singapore opera stage. Director David Edwards, of the wackiest Barber of Seville of seasons past, returned with a vengeance, but this time balancing radical ideas with urgent gravitas. Carmen and Jose were no mere singing cardboard cut-outs but multi-layered characters who ultimately evoked genuine sympathy.

Fournier mesmerised not only with her dusky voice, but with moves and gestures that flaunted every single asset she possessed. Femme fatale she was, but also a complex psychological basket case, which swung wildly from a Boudicea-like revolutionary to a bitch-in-heat writhing uncontrollably on the stage floor. Lee was equally believable, caught between two loves and emerging in a confused daze rather than murderous rage.

The supporting cast was one of the strongest assembled in recent memory. Melvin Tan, Peter Ong, Cherylene Liew and Satsuki Nagatome elicited splendid chemistry as the smugglers, and even had a vaudeville number on their own, complete with canes. Huang Rong Hai’s Escamillo and Li Yang’s Micaela sang their standout arias well, while William Lim’s Zuniga was suitably bathetic.

The set was simple and effective. Wire mesh, corrugated boards and planks conjured the barrenness of an industrial wasteland, aptly reflecting the lives caught within, completed with a screen displaying scenes of Spanish landscapes and the bloodfests that are bullfights. The uniformed presence of soldiers suggests a totalitarian state, one policing mobs yearning for liberté.

Choral scenes, augmented by male voices from Beijing’s National Centre for Performing Arts, were superbly handled, and the SLO youth and children’s choirs a total joy, despite singing past their bedtimes. Joshua Kangming Tan’s direction of the SLO Orchestra was taut and precise, without being excessively driven. Some of the instrumental solos could have been more accurately executed.

The final scene of Carmen and José will be this production’s talking point. There was no face-off, instead both sang into the audience, indicating that their split to be final and irredeemable. Without revealing too much about the ending, there are only losers when a love affair dies. This rather unique Carmen plays for two more nights (24 & 25 January), and it would be a shame to miss it.

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