For a quarter of a century Mid Wales Opera has dedicated itself to touring places in Wales and England where opera normally doesn’t reach, always aspiring to the highest professional standards while operating on a shoestring budget.
These financial exigencies have inspired some wonderfully resourceful, economically-staged productions, most recently Acis and Galatea, but austerity has gone a little too far in the new silver jubilee presentation of Bizet’s Carmen.
Perhaps the most popular in the repertoire, Carmen is a magnet for those unfamiliar to the alleged mystique of opera. But what MWO give us here is a flat-tyred lack of transport into what should be an escape into a world of spectacle and passion.
Veteran director Jonathan Miller cites minimal finances as the reason for the absence of any Spanish elements in his concept.
Instead we are thrust into the depressed ambience of pre-civil war Spain, as though we have strayed into a play by Federico Garcia Lorca. A plywood boxed set encloses us in a world of nihilism which could be anywhere, so Bizet’s wonderfully idiomatic Spanish colourings seemed literally out of place.
The only Spanish elements actually present were in the timbres of Stephen McNeff’s imaginative orchestral reduction, with guitar and the hard-working percussionist’s castanets providing aural local colour. Elsewhere, though, for all conductor Nicholas Cleobury’s affectionate nuancing of the score, much of the sound evokes a Big Top band, not least in the opening of the Act One Prelude.
Casting is disappointing, too. Helen Sherman’s well-sung Carmen emerges as nothing more than an exercise in seduction by numbers, her preys here (how many previous has she had?) lacking in engagement with her: Leonel Pinheiro an effortful Don Jose, Nicholas Lester barely dangerous as the charismatic Escamillo.
Diction is generally excellent as Rory Bremner’s lively new translation is delivered, though the variety of accents in spoken dialogue is bewildering. Are we already into multiculturalism in pre-Franco Spain?
Best result in this cash-strapped enterprise is the tiny chorus, four ever-presents reinforced pragmatically by principals having a few moments off their main roles. They all work so hard in a brave attempt to make a silk purse.