Ellen Kent Amphitheatre Productions
Sunderland Empire and touring
Amphitheatre Productions is Ellen Kent's new venture, a series of well known operas in an amphitheatre setting, recalling the Colliseum in Rome. This season's offerings at the Sunderland Empire were Tosca and La Bohème as well as Carmen (in which, we are told, the amphitheatre setting represents the bull ring), but unfortunately the BTG was unable to get a reviewer along to the first two. As we went into the theatre, a colleague from a regional newspaper, who had seen them, said, "Expect a pretty traditional production" and, of course, that is what one expects from Ellen Kent and her Russian performers, although often she will add some touches of her own, such as - memorably for me at any rate - the naked ladies of her production of Rigoletto in 2006, although she has used horses, an eagle and other spectacular ideas.
She doesn't disappoint: this production features a flamenco dancer, a flamenco singer and a brass band! The latter opens the production with the pasa doble as a the Toreador and his cuadrilla circles the stage. The overture also features the flamenco dancer, Samantha Quy.
For Ellen Kent, it is a comparatively small company because of the number of chorus members: without Mercedes and Farsquita the cigarette girls would have looked very thin on the ground and the fight scene in Act I looked particularly ineffective in the wide open space of the amphitheatre staging, especially when the guards were keeping the girls apart. And why, oh why were these cigarette girls, who had just finished what one presumes was a long shift in the factory, dressed in pristine white? It just looked wrong. I had a similar feeling in Act IV when Don José appears dressed in a torn shirt which was also unfeasibly clean.
I have commented in the past about the static nature of Ellen Kent's productions - the traditional stand-and-sing rather than full-blown acting (in Bohème in 2006, for example) - but here it works against the opera. I wanted more fire from Carmen (beautifully sung by Zarui Vardanean) and more physical flexibility from Don José (Irakli Grigali, whose singing was powerful under the stress of emotion but underpowered otherwise). Irina Vinogradova made an appealing Micaela and Maria Tsonina a fiery and powerful Frasquita - even when just part of the chorus she stood out.
Ah, the chorus... With the excellent Opera North chorus in I Capuletti still fresh in my mind, I wanted much more from Carmen than we got. In Act IV they stand, backs to audience, on the upper level of the set, supposedly watching a bullfight while murder and mayhem take place centre stage. Unfortunately they stood relaxed, simply waving occasionally. Now I have never been to a bullfight (nor, to be honest, ever want to go to one), but I imagine the reaction of the crowd is not dissimilar to that of supporters at a football match (and I have been part of many of those, especially in the old days when most of us stood). There is tension, delight, horror, anger, despair - all human emotions are there! Hands and fists may be thrust up into the air; heads may be clutched and shoulders slump; but no one stands waving as if to a casual acquaintance on the other side of the street.
And this is the weakness of this production, the physicality, and it showed in minor as well as major things. We hear of the "swaggering banderilleros" but we see two rather old men walk slowly around the stage.
In terms of the music, few complaints, but the drama - and Carmen is nothing if not dramatic - was lacking, which led to a not quite satisfying operatic experience. And that's sad, for normally I am a great fan of Ellen Kent's productions.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan