“If you love me, then beware.” When Kezia Bienek sings the last line of Carmen’s Habanera at Opera Holland Park she has her eyebrow decidedly arched: by that point it’s not herself she’s really singing about, but her own myth. In Cecilia Stinton’s new production it’s the myth of Carmen that the soldiers have become infatuated by, not the real woman – at first they aren’t even sure they recognise exactly which of the women she is. To her friends, however, she’s very real indeed: it’s not often you come out of a production of Carmen feeling that the murdered heroine will be genuinely mourned.
How to put all Bizet’s glorious tunes on stage without presenting the audience with a reliquary of tired devil-woman cliches is a challenge each director must negotiate. Stinton, a recent graduate of OHP’s Young Artists, gives us a Carmen who is the life and soul of her circle, radiating joy rather than lust – and, for the most part, this interpretation works. Carmen’s choice of Oliver Johnston’s initially gormless Don José from among the slightly Dad’s Army-ish ranks is still initially baffling, but when they are alone in act two things gain focus. There’s an explosion of violent anger from Don José, but immediately afterwards Johnston shapes his burly tenor into a beautifully gentle Flower Song, and Bienek’s Carmen is, for the first time, visibly at a loss. More clearly than usual, her murder is the result of his controlling obsessiveness: look what you made me do.
Stinton perhaps throws too many ideas at that final act, but otherwise she tells the story clearly on the wide stage, and the two blocks of set in takis’s designs come together effectively to suggest the hot, crowded bar into which Thomas Mole’s cocky Escamillo saunters. The score has been arranged by the conductor Lee Reynolds for the small forces of the City of London Sinfonia, and occasionally one misses Bizet’s orchestral luxuriance, but Reynolds keeps the pace up and the voices come over well. Alison Langer’s jilted Micaëla takes on something of a heroic quality, alone on the catwalk stage in front of the orchestra as she sings her big aria, her gleaming soprano tone belying her drab, sensible appearance. Bienek’s charismatic, incisive-sounding Carmen shines, but the musical number that steals the show is arguably the one that begins the fourth act, with the adult and children’s choruses on joyous form.