The sun shone for the opening of the inaugural Grange Festival’s new production of Carmen, located at the striking Greek revival Grange mansion in Hampshire, and it was a star-studded affair indeed, Emma Thompson and Myleene Klass to name but a few of the A-list guests. Evening dresses flowed as effortlessly as the champagne and picnickers either found a pleasant spot on the manicured lawn or headed to a reserved table inside one of the many marquees for an aperitif and canapés ahead of the afternoon performance.
Artistic Director countertenor Michael Chance is at the helm of this ambitious project, largely reliant upon generous benefactors, and it’s impressive to consider what has been achieved since the idea was first given scope in 2015. The largest opera company to have launched in the UK in over a century, Chance has a unique take on the international opera circuit having walked the boards of some of the greatest opera venues in the world.
Unlike some opera festivals, such as Garsington, the theatre is a permanent structure; a marvel of modern architecture that showcases the striking original structure of the building (owned by the 7th Lord Ashburton) whilst giving the space an entirely new purpose. First constructed in 2000 for the Grange Park Opera various disputes saw that company check out and relocate to West Horsley Place in Surrey, prompting an entirely new team to launch the competing Grange Festival despite being faced with having to reconstruct a theatre entirely devoid of seating and fixtures. An expensive business that meant a serious on-going fund-raising strategy.
And the tight production budget shows in this modern staging of Carmen directed by opera stalwart Annabel Arden; the costumes designed by Ilona Karas are occasionally glamorous but generally resemble an eclectic assortment from the 1970s, and Joanna Parker’s rather gloomy sets certainly leave a lot to the imagination, however, the well cast stars are worth every penny for putting in performances that don’t require much in the way of frills to convey the full passion and drama of Seville, whether it’s the opening that takes place outside a cigarette factory, a prison cell or a bloody bull fight.
The clever addition of two English speaking narrators, Aicha Kossoko and Tonderai Munyevu, add a great depth and humour to the lyrics (sung in the original French), whilst helping to advance the story and draw the audience in, whether it’s speaking the immortal lines of the iconic Habanera, “love is a rebellious bird that nobody can tame”, introducing us to the protagonists or filling us in when time has elapsed.
It was clear that Israeli mezzo-soprano Na’ama Goldman, who happens to look a lot like the late Amy Winehouse, was terrifically cast in the title role from her seductive performance of said Habanera, the first opportunity we have to hear her rich, almost masculine tones, while her long dark locks, buckets of charisma and decided fiestiness convince us of her gypsy blood.
Nor is Goldman any stranger to the role, having first attained notice when she stepped in to play Carmen at short notice during the Masada Festival in 2012, and boy can you see her ease at revisiting this wild character who is dismissive of men who try to woo her and thinks nothing of fighting the virtuous Micaëla (Shelley Jackson) for her lover the soldier Don José (Leonardo Capalbo), a couple we pity for being torn apart by the ruthless gypsy, for we all know that Don José is too timid to ever truly win Carmen.
The wonderful baritone Phillip Rhodes (who receives the ongoing support of the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation) gave a stand-out performance as Escamillo, the bull fighter who knows no fear, and, recognising that his spirit is more aligned to Carmen’s is prepared to stop at nothing in order to see off Don José, who in turn becomes desperate at losing her love and will stop at nothing to prevent the pair from being together.
The acclaimed French conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud meanwhile led the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with great vivacity from the pit, doing full justice to Bizet’s most beloved and recognisable work, from the exhilarating opening prelude to the soaring arias and stirring choral parts, which, with an infectious enthusiasm, he could often be seen mouthing the words to as he communicated boldly with the cast, all of whom sang their hearts out and gave us a powerful, expressive chorus entirely in unison.
The sparsity of the set really came into its own in the second half, for it worked as a powerful backdrop to the raw passions of the characters and defined this production as one that would live in the memory for some time. There is no doubt that The Grange Festival will satisfy even the most avid opera lover, and based on this season and one highly accomplished Carmen, it is sure to become a firm fixture on the English social calendar for some time to come. Bear with the sketchy design, productions here are sure to get far more elaborate over the years to come, but for now just reap the benefit of having few visual distractions and observe instead the superb characterisations and tremendous musicality that have been pulled together by the small, yet dedicated team behind this exciting new opera festival.
Carmen at The Grange Festival, Northington, Alresford, Hampshire SO24 9TG, until 8th July 2017. Production images by Robert Workman. There is an extensive interval to allow time for dining, whether you order or bring your own picnic, or reserve a three course dinner in the formal restaurant. For more information and tickets please visit the website.