After the success of their first ever show in the Gala Theatre last year, Durham Opera Ensemble’s largest production in recent times had created incredibly high expectations throughout Durham. The excitement in the theatre beforehand was palpable with both the general public and the University’s most avid music followers eagerly awaiting a sell-out night of opera. Despite a few occasional weaknesses, DOE largely met the incredibly high expectations of the crowd.
Carmen follows the tale of Don José’s (Phillipe Durrant) tragic infatuation with the fiery and seductive Carmen (Sophia Smith-Galer). Filled with passion, jealousy and destruction, the love triangle between the lovers and Escamillo (James Quitmann) inevitably ends in sorrow and death.
Despite the bleak premise, the all-round performances of the cast provided real energy and enjoyment throughout. Smith-Galer’s portrayal of the titular character, Carmen, was excellent. From her first entrance on stage to her tragic demise, she showed a true command of the stage and score through her natural stage presence and vocal control. While I personally felt the translation from the original French diminished the impact of the iconic Habanera, Smith-Galer more than made up for this with her playful, legato tone and superb command over the highest and lowest parts of her range.
The emotional complexities of Don José were subtly and effectively brought out by Phillipe Durrant. I was especially moved by the emotional scene in Act II where José professes his tormented love for Carmen. His soft vocal tone and genuine tenderness truly earned the sympathies of the audience. However, despite this conflicted side to Durrant’s portrayal being adequately displayed through the score, his acting during the edited libretto scenes seemed stilted and unconfident, an issue which was also seen throughout the cast.
Escamillo, played by James Quitmann, was a dominant and imposing presence on stage, notably from his entrance on stage in the Prelude. Quitmann’s powerful baritone voice and even tones throughout led to a truly well rounded performance, shown especially in the famous Toreador. His fantastic projection meant that his voice was always heard where others were drowned out, not to mention his flawless diction, which truly enhanced his performance.
Claire Ward should not go unmentioned for her consistently strong approach to her character, Micaëla. Both her characterization and singing deserve praise and the audience were instantly captivated by her beautiful, supported top notes and expressive tone. In my opinion she gave one of the standout performances of the evening and her rendition of Micaëla’s Air in Act 3 was stunning.
Other performances of note include the duo of Emer Acton and Fiona Brindle, as Frasquita and Mercédès respectively, and Julian Purdy as Zuniga. The girls were delightful to watch and had an excellent chemistry on stage while Purdy’s slimy portrayal of Zuniga and his dominant Bass tone truly warranted merited.
One of the main strengths of the production as a whole was the chorus. It takes a great skill to be able to effectively direct a chorus and Crispin Lord’s character work and attention to detail with all performers on stage made a huge impact to the audience with each chorus member being fully engaging. The chorus’s commitment to the acting, sing and dancing, added great pace to the production and lifted a number of scenes, especially at the start of the second act.
DOE deserve an enormous amount of credit for involving children from Gilesgate Primary School in the production. This example of outreach in our local community sets a benchmark for other societies and should be applauded. However, that being said, it was evident that the children could have benefitted from extra rehearsals and direction. Although comical and charming in parts, this detracted from some of the dramatic, closing scenes of the opera, leaving the cast on stage to rebuild vital tension that was lost.
In terms of the overall aesthetics of the show, the Director, Lord, was successful in his use of a minimal set which allowed for full attention to the action on stage. His joint effort with Technical Director, Gabriel Finn, filled the Gala stage in a professional way without the need for over-embellished stage pieces, which is no mean feat, while also successfully transporting the audience back to Franco’s Spain. The brilliant costumes also aided with this impression. It cannot be underestimated how difficult it is to costume such a large cast in period and for that the Bethan Winter and Laura Thomlinson should be commended. Finn’s lighting took the production to a new level with many of his choices adding an important extra dynamic to certain scenes. This was particularly obvious during Act III, where both the lights descending from the ceiling and the circular gobo during the fight scene, created an outstanding effect.
The main criticism I had with the production as a whole was the balance between the cast and the orchestra. Although in chorus scenes this was not an issue, it was difficult to hear the leads over the orchestra and chorus. As opera is very rarely mic’ed, it is especially important for the orchestra and the singers on stage to consider the relative levels of dynamics and adapt to this. In order for tomorrow’s performance to improve and a strong first night performance, discussions need to be had between the production team, cast and orchestra in order to make them more aware of this issue.
In spite of the lack of balance, the orchestra were quite simply superb. Conducted magnificently by Musical Director, Lewis Wilkinson, they maintained a supremely high level of performance throughout. From the weighty brass chords at the finale of Act I to the beautiful woodwind melodies in Act III, alongside a consistently exquisite string section, the musical understanding and togetherness the orchestra displayed is a testament to both Wilkinson’s direction and the calibre of musicians on show. They truly gave justice to a great work of music and deserve all compliments given to them for their performance.
Overall, I came out of the Gala Theatre astounded by the obvious hard work and talent that has gone into DOE’s latest production. Despite a few wobbles in the closing scenes and the need for slightly more confidence from the leads, Carmen is sure to impress both ardent fans and opera novices alike.