Dinyar Vania (Don José) and Paula Murrihy (Carmen) in INO's Carmen. Image by Ruth Medjber
Iconic arias, an iconic character, sumptuous spectacle and death scenes to die for, Bizet's 1875 opera comique, Carmen, has stood the test of time. Two years in waiting, Irish National Opera have also stood the test of time, or at least the test of COVID. Finally seeing their long delayed and much anticipated Carmen take to the stage. Confirming the resilience that underscores INO and highlighting why Carmen remains a classic to this day. Even when the reins of its passion are firmly held in check, as they are in this safe, family friendly production.
Paula Murrihy (Carmen), Dinyar Vania (Don José) and Celine Byrne (Micaëla) in INO's Carmen. Image by Ruth Medjber
Complicated with themes of sex, hatred and jealousy, Carmen's tale of a Spanish soldier and a local gypsy girl has always been vulnerable to problematic readings. For some, it's a cautionary tale about the dangers of outsiders. For others it's a tale about the demonisation of outsiders, particularly women. Or else a tale about a fickle she devil ruining a good man who loves his mother. Or a tale of toxic masculinity resorting to violence when spurned by an independent woman. The latter theme heavily leaned into here as a lovestruck Don José, seduced by desire for the tempestuous Carmen, forsakes the virginal Micaëla and his promising military career. As he pleads his passion, with one eye focused on the world he left behind, Carmen's eye is drawn to matador Escamillo, the boy all the bad girls want. Don José and Carmen meeting in a moment of truth. Discovering that while some will resist unto death to have their freedom, others will kill to deny it in the name of love.
Paula Murrihy (Carmen) in INO's Carmen. Image by Ruth Medjber
Under Paul Curran's conservative direction Carmen opts for a conventional look. Large crowd scenes masterfully managed are offset by deft smaller touches, the occasional stroke of genius, and a little sloppiness as action leans towards tableaux. Moments like the fatherly kiss on Micaëla's forehead offer brilliant narrative touches. Others, like the matador dance, make for something of an untidy look. Gary McCann's angular set, suggesting additional spacial depth, firmly references the Fifties with its design and comic book colours, with McCann's costumes often steeped in the tropes of Grease. There's even a little Grease Lightning choreography thrown in for good measure. Leaving Bizet's complicated femme fatale resembling Rizzo in a red dress. The good girl Micaëla wrapped in Sandy-like colours like a Virgin Mary. Not to mention the slick DA's and turned up jeans.
Niamh O'Sullivan (Mercédès), Paula Murrihy (Carmen) and Rachel Croash (Frasquita) in INO's Carmen. Image Ruth Medjber
If Carmen trades problematic interpretations for easy tropes, the effect can be awkward laughter as it skirts thematic mines and fails to nail down some dated loose threads. Yet Paul Hackenmueller's lighting, recreated by Pip Walsh, helps compensate by instilling significant emotional depth. Matching the music of the Irish National Opera Orchestra, under conductor Kenneth Montgomery, whose power isn't always done acoustic justice. Not so the singing, which ultimately steals the show. If choruses are sublime, solos and duets prove equally so. Tenor Dinyar Vania's heartrending La fleur que tu m'avais jetée enough to leave you in tears for the lovelorn Don José. Bass-baritone Milan Siljanov's superb Escamillo gives an excellent rendition of Toreador, one of the night's many highlights. Soprano Rachel Croash also proves dazzling, along with mezzo-soprano Niamh O'Sullivan, as Frasquite and Mercédès respectively. Soprano Celine Byrne might only have brief cameos, but they're enough to make you wish Bizet had written Micaëla a larger part. Byrne could sing utter nonsense and make you believe it. Which she sometimes does in Carmen. But the night belongs to vivacious mezzo-soprano, Paula Murrihy as Carmen. Murrihy's melliferous voice, superb during Habanera, weaves powerful magic throughout in a strong, impassioned performance.
For those who like their operas to be neither risky nor risqué, INO's Carmen wouldn't look out of place on the Disney Channel. For those who prefer a grown up, HBO Carmen, this is not it. Even its attempts at being naughty look nice. And its inclusion of a cute children's chorus ensure it's a game for all the family to play. That said, INO's family friendly Carmen makes for a wonderful night at the opera, with singing utterly spellbinding. It may not plumb its possible depths, but what it does it does remarkable well. Portraying Carmen as a strong, independent, and adventurous woman. Just the ticket for International Women's Day.
Carmen by Georges Bizet, with libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. An Irish National Opera, Opera Philadelphia and Seattle Opera co-production, in partnership with Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.
Runs at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre March 9, 11 and 12.