I’ve been trying to remember the last time I saw Carmen live, but it’s lost in the mists of time. I’m assuming that at some point I must have seen it, as it was the first opera I heard / liked / got to know, and it’s the one I know best (better even than The Ring), but maybe I haven’t. I watched the webcast of last year’s ENO production, which I enjoyed (although many critics didn’t). During my (thankfully) very brief spell teaching music I watched the Migenes/Domingo/Raimondi film version in instalments with my class of pre-teens (yes, they liked it; yes, they were normal kids from a range of backgrounds, not segregated by IQ, wealth or religion). I did once go to see a friend perform in a provincial amdram thing called ‘Carmen – The Musical’, which (barring a couple of notable exceptions) was bloody awful. But the real thing? Can’t remember. Anyway, I decided to go to this particular one because (a) I wanted to see Kyle Ketelsen do Escamillo, and (b) Marcelo Álvarez was doing Don José, and lots of people (whose opinions I trust) rave about how great he is.

From my seat in the Upper Slips I had an excellent view of the conductor, Daniel Oren, whom I watched during the overture, as there wasn’t anything to look at on stage for most of it. It was intriguing, as he threw some shapes I’ve never seen any other conductor do, including some pointing up and down that looked a bit Travolta-esque, and a groovy horizontal wavy movement. It was cool. I know that the Carmen Overture pretty much plays itself, but the orchestra really were completely spot-on, and remained so throughout the whole opera. Oren generally took the tempi on the fast side, which I liked; clearly Nancy Fabiola Herrera didn’t, as when she began singing the Habanera and Seguidilla, it was at a slower pace than the introduction, which caused a minor lurch, but which the musicians handled extremely well. I haven’t heard Herrera before, and was quite surprised at the dark timbre and weight of her voice, which I would have thought would suit heavier, more dramatic roles. I did like it, though, and apart from a few dodgy tuning moments early on, and some even dodgier French pronunciation moments, her performance was excellent, in particular her completely convincing inhabitation of the role.

The set was a traditional one; appropriate and quite attractive, with orange trees, real campfires for the gypsies, and no surprises or alternative ‘interpretations’. At the very end of the Act 1 overture, there was a tableau of José kneeling on the ground with his head down, looking remorseful, which I took to be a flash-forward, but apart from that everything was played completely straight. The chorus and dancers had a certain slightly chaotic quality to them, never all doing quite the same thing at the same time; I assume this was intentional! It was particularly effective in the tavern scene, where they really looked like a bunch of people who just happened to be very good movers, having an impromptu dance and sing-song down the pub one night, rather than a fake-looking choreographed and rehearsed team of professionals.

Musically, Act 1 was the weakest, as it seemed that some of the singers were taking a while to fully warm up. In particular, Susan Gritton’s Micaela didn’t do much for me earlier on, but she got better and better as the performance went on, and was really very moving towards the end. Act 1 also unfortunately contains the extended brats’ chorus, which I would happily cut entirely; do I go to the opera house to hear a bunch of kids with their nasty squeaky little voices and their poor tuning and timing? Still, it was possible to ignore them at least partially by focusing my attention on the flute section (on piccolos at that point), who were excellent. From my seat I couldn’t see the woodwind, so I don’t know which two of the ROH flutes were playing that night, but they were really, really good. Bizet writes so many great flute tunes, and I hope they were enjoying themselves, despite probably having played it a million times before. The principal flute showed off a lovely liquid tone during the Act 3 Entr’acte, and although the phrasing and choice of breathing spaces seemed a little curious at times, floated a particularly delicate pianissimo top Bb.

Sitting in the Upper Slips, one gets possibly the best acoustic in the house (and the lowest price seats), at the expense of having a portion of the stage missing. I consider this an acceptable trade-off, but it does mean sometimes not being able to see the action. It would be nice if all key scenes between, say, the two main characters, were somewhere in the main portion of the stage, but I guess it’s more interesting for directors to stick them right in one of the corners. Unfortunately for me, on this occasion the director chose to set lots of duet and solo bits, especially José’s, in the one bit of the stage I couldn’t see. (Funnily, last time I heard Álvarez (Trovatore, 2007) I was on the opposite side of the amphitheatre, but he was stuck on the other side of the stage, and so I couldn’t see him then either.) Still, he sounded amazing, and that’s the main thing. When he was singing beautifully but completely out of sight, many of the people in my row stood up and craned forward to try and see him. My centre of gravity was above the level of the railing so I was glad I was wearing rubber-soled sneakers for that extra bit of resistance. Given that I am not particularly tall, I was somewhat concerned for the taller people leaning over the railing, but there were no disasters. Perhaps when stage directors submit their plans, they should add to their Health & Safety evaluation ‘danger of people falling off the balcony trying to see invisible star tenor’.

Prize for best entrance of the evening goes to Kyle Ketelsen, who got to ride onto stage on a horse, and then sing the first few minutes on horseback. It was an impressively well-trained horse, but I’m not sure it really added that much. But then, I knew about the horse-riding in advance, and it was probably a good surprise for those who didn’t. After getting off the horse, he spent the rest of the Toreador song strutting around on the table; it occurred to me that they might be doing this to try and make him look taller, but if so, it’s really not necessary. He’s not that short (unlike, say, Barry Banks, where they do have a point), and I would imagine a smallish but athletic frame would be ideal for torero-ing. And it’s not many men who look good in those funny little trousers and bolero jackets. As ever, his voice was of consistently excellent quality, sung with feeling but always perfect control. I also want to describe his portrayal of Escamillo as ‘witty’, although I can’t point to exactly why. Honourable mentions also go to Elena Xanthoudakis (Frasquita) and Alan Ewing (Zuniga), both a pleasure to hear and making the most of their small roles.

Carmen is the sort of piece that attracts audience-members who wouldn’t normally go to the opera. I thought it was very enjoyable and was hoping they did too, so I earwigged a bit on the way out. A selection of overheard comments: “It was hilarious when they finished that big dramatic scene about the soldier’s dying mum, and the toreador was still singing his jolly little song in the background.” (Actually, that contrast is pretty amusing when you think about it.) From a satisfied audience member “Yeah, the singing was cool, but it had a really good backing track too.” (Backing track?! As an orchestral musician I find this mildly insulting.) From a less satisfied audience member “The plot went slow, ’cause they kept stopping what they were doing to sing a song about it.” (Can’t really argue with that, but I’m not sure what she was expecting…)