‘En garde, toreador, Carmen is in town…’ reviewed by Christopher Walker

The summer opera season is in full swing.

Holland Park offers audiences a traditional Carmen where Kezia Bienek puts the devil back into the title role, writes Christopher Walker.

However, it is the many newcomers who steal the show, especially the wonderful Thomas Mole. They provide a glorious summer’s evening of entertainment.

Bizet’s Carmen is often now considered a light opera, which is a million miles away from its original conception
In many ways it was the first of the ‘verismo’ or ‘true to life’ operas that came to dominate the art form.

Indeed, one critic noted that the first audience was “shocked by the drastic realism of the action” and the immorality of the main characters.

Set in a sweltering Seville, it tells the story of the downfall of Don José, a naïve boy soldier.

He deserts his childhood sweetheart, his regiment and honest life in general, for the sensuous delights of the gypsy Carmen.

Carmen herself is quite a piece of work beguiling all as she sings Outside the Walls of Sevilla, At My Friend Lillas Pastia’s, I’ll Dance the Seguidilla and Drink Manzanilla.

Thomas Mole as Escamillo in Carmen.  Picture: Ali Wright

The problem is she doesn’t care with whom. Basically, she eats men for breakfast and tosses the remains in the gutter. Having captured Don José’s heart she leads him into a life of crime before swiftly moving on to the glamorous toreador Escamillo.

Contemporary audiences might see this as a long overdue exploration of female sexuality but in Bizet’s time it was considered nothing short of scandalous, and Carmen a complete monster.

Bizet retorted: “These bourgeois have not understood a wretched word of the work.”

He sadly died soon after the show opened to half-empty houses.

Little did he know it would become such a classic, though some still see Carmen as a “cold unconvincing monster.”

Callas recorded the role but carefully never sang her on stage.

Kezia Bienek certainly plays Carmen as a cold temptress, easily dominating the hapless Don José (Alexander Robin Baker at my performance).

She struts around the stage in a variety of outfits demonstrating just how little she cares for him, or indeed anybody.

But in this production, it is the relative newcomer Thomas Mole who stands out as the glamorous bullfighter Escamillo.

He has wonderful stage presence and a simply magnificent baritone voice. A real discovery who we shall hopefully see much more of. Who can blame Carmen for upgrading from Don José?

The always strong Alison Langer sings Don José’s old girlfriend the milksop Micaela.

In her simple checks she is easily outgunned by Carmen flouncing around in a Flamenco dress. Well done designer Takis.

Many of the secondary roles are very well sung.

Natasha Agarwal is perfectly cast as the exotic gypsy Frasquita and Ellie Edmonds is wonderful as Mercedes.

These two are Carmen’s ever present girlfriends.

Jacob Phillips is excellent as Don José’s commanding officer Zuniga, and Jevan McAuley and Mike Bradley as his compatriots.

Also standing out is Themba Mvula as Le Dancaire. He has a glorious baritone voice and a touch of the Duke from Bridgerton about him. More please.

I was lucky enough to hear Sonia Ben-Santamaria conducting. In her full length black dress and red high heels she gave Carmen a run for her money in the costume stakes.

But more importantly she conducted firmly and with authority. The Children’s Chorus from Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School clearly adored her, as the audience did them.

The acoustics certainly favour the orchestra in the new set up, but strong voices do come through including so many wonderful newcomers.

Go to:  https://operahollandpark.com/productions/carmen-2022/


Pictured: Kezia Bienek as Carmen in Carmen at Opera Holland Park Picture: Ali Wright




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