Monday, May 24, 2010

Carmen at the O2

The passionate and beautiful Carmen, a gypsy factory worker, attracts rival lovers: soldier Don Jose and Escamillo, a bull-fighter. Initially faithful to the worthy Don Alonso, who for her sake deserts his post, Carmen succumbs to the local hero’s flashy charms. This being nineteenth century Seville,revenge ensues.

Christina Nassif in the skirt-swishing lead role seemed at times lost among the 100-strong cast and her voice lacked distinction. Elizabeth Atherton was outstanding as Micaela, the girl-next-door admirer of Don Jose. With mousy plaited hair and dull clothes, her subdued gestures and posture held attention and earned her the loudest final applause. Kevin Greenlaw was handsome in the fairly slight role of Escamillo and John Hudson was a stocky and sympathetic Don Jose, also cheered.

This was the very first opera to be staged at the O2 Arena, previously known as the Millennium Dome, normally hosting sell-put pop concerts. When I did presentationd to Travel and Tourism students in the run up to 2000, I explained the benefits to the local environment and transport infrastructure, in addition to providing a 'heritage' structure funded by lottery proceeds. When the right wing press bundled it with New Labour as a target any chance of a government-funded conversion was lost. The Dome was rescued from becoming a giant casino but it’s ironic that a project built with workers’ money now profits a multi-million global company.

A cross between a circus tent and an aircraft hangar, the best thing about the O2 Arena is its position, on a promontory jutting into the Thames. The reclamation of polluted land and its relative isolation from residential housing were factors that influenced the choice of the location for the Millennium legacy. Inside, it’s so big that that I doubt even binoculars would help identify the singers in the crowd scenes. It does allow, however, for the hugely ambitious stage for Carmen, an elongated serpent with two bulges in the middle.

One end of the giant S curled round the London Philharmonic Orchestra, doing full justice under conductor Gareth Hancock, to Bizet’ score. It excelled both in rousing set-pieces like ‘Toreador’ and in more subdued solo and duets between the principals. The space at the opposite end was by turns a tobacco factory, a night encampment and a bullring. The raised plane of the giant S in its wider centre served as the town square at noon, a place for lunch-break flirtation, and then a street café lit by strings of coloured bulbs for sultry evening trysts and knife fights. The snaking platform, aided by Andrew Bridge’s moody lighting design, was by turns a cat walk for factory girls, a dusty road for marching soldiers and a triumphal route for a procession that included fire eaters and somersaulting tumblers.

The programme was well worth the £6 price tag and included a plot synopsis and biography of Bizet, as well as articles on bull-fighting and the rise of the taste for verismo in operatic works. It is perhaps the latter that makes Carmen the most popular and most frequently performed opera. David Rogers contributed an interesting explanation for his design choices, in particular the death motifs celebrated in Spanish culture.

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