by Rachel Beaumont

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Mozart elation: Don Giovanni at the ROH

Don Giovanni
Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Stalls Circle D51 standing, £13
8 October 2019
ROH page

I was somewhat despairing of myself for having bought tickets to the Royal Opera’s umpteenth revival of Don Giovanni. I love Mozart’s opera dearly – it was almost my sole listening for most of my teenage years – but Kasper Holten’s 2014 production has always got my goat, with its counter-musical, counter-dramatic changing of the story and its general ugliness.

Reader, I must have mellowed. Changing the ending, so Don Giovanni is not visited by a real ghost but only by his self-loathing, and not taken into hell but only left in the ‘torment of his own loneliness’, is still cloth-eared. But otherwise the things that aggravate me in this production I found now largely ignoreable, and there was so much to give pleasure in the musical performance that I left elated.

This is not to say that musically it was perfect. Stage and pit regularly parted ways, conductor Hartmut Haenchen unable either to move self-indulgent singers along or temper the orchestra to their demands. Soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu as Donna Elvira is a sorry replacement for the indisposed Christine Rice – decently in-tune, pleasant in ensembles, but lacking the welly to juice Elvira’s fabulous arias. And as seems to be customary with the Royal Opera, the Commendatore, Petros Magoulas, was a decent singer but without the earth-shaking sonority such a role deserves.

Otherwise the cast was strong, and, aside from that tendency to drag, superbly stylish with Haenchen. Roberto Tagliavini made a robust Leporello and Malin Byström, while she bothers me still in seeming always to hold something back, at moments sounded glorious. My heart went without reservation to Erwin Schrott as Don Giovanni, Daniel Behle as Don Ottavio and Louise Alder as Zerlina. I had expected to find Schrott over-swaggery, as I had at Faust in the summer but actually he was just a charming delight, and in superb voice. Behle has a trademark of incredibly elegant soft sostenuto and he deployed it here to great effect – what a joy to hear Ottavio sung with such sophistication. And Alder is an ideal Zerlina, her bright soubrette gloriously in tune, perfectly balanced and gleaming.

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Fascinating nonsense: The Intelligence Park at the Linbury

The Intelligence Park
Royal Opera and Music Theatre Wales
Linbury Theatre
Upper Circle B6 standing, £7
4 October 2019
ROH page

The Intelligence Park is one strange opera. Composer Gerald Barry imagines an opera composer in Baroque Dublin who falls in love with his leading man, an Italian castrato, who is having an affair with the composer’s fiancée, under the nose of her rage-filled father, all observed by the composer’s louche companion. Fair enough, but while Barry’s music has at one stage ingested some music of the period, by the time it comes out the other end faith is required to see anything other than Barry sui generis. His is demented music, explicitly detached from the meaning of the words, which are broken by long pauses and huge intervals. The libretto by Vincent Deane is almost as absurd.

Given this, it is not surprising that so many people left at the interval. Indeed, they probably made the right call for their evening, as Barry is nothing if not persistent: if you hated the first half there’s not much about the second half that could change your mind. For me though, while I wouldn’t rush to see The Intelligence Park again, I found the experience of it both thrilling and fascinating. I give gratitude and credit to the production teams for their boldness in what I assume is likely to be The Intelligence Park’s only London performance for at least a generation.

Let’s start with the fascination. The Intelligence Park is Barry’s first opera. I’ve listened to it on CD a few times and didn’t draw much of a conclusion beyond it sounding a lot like Barry. This holds up in live performance: you can argue whether such consistency from The Intelligence Park in 1990 to Barry’s most recent opera Alice’s Adventures Under Ground in 2014 is a good thing or a bad thing, but it certainly is remarkable.

What I didn’t get from listening to it on CD was the interplay of this consistent musical style between different librettos. It grants enjoyable hindsight for the great success of Barry’s 2010 opera The Importance of Being Earnest and the abject failure of Alice. Deane’s libretto is, if you like, too absurd; it’s so much of a part with Barry’s music that you end marooned in a wash of nonsense. What an inspired idea, then, to anchor Barry with Wilde, whose logical substance gives you something to hang onto and where Barry’s irreverence brings yet more levity to the original. And how nearly it could have worked to pair him with Lewis Carroll – but where ultimately we are too far back in nonsense-land to care at all.

Possibly because my expectations were rather lower than for Alice, I found I really did care about The Intelligence Park. I didn’t care or even understand the characters, or the narrative; I didn’t care for the opera in the way people care for La traviata. But how thrilling to be with this opera that nearly thirty years on from its inception still sounds so bizarre, so alien, so out there; an opera where so many left at the interval and were right for themselves to do so; where singers, instrumentalists and conductor all have obviously given so much time even to be able to perform what is written, so different it is from the common idiom. How thrilling to encounter a truly absurd opera where that absurdity is diegetically confined – a Beckettian flourish, where all the attributes of a conventional opera are there but the whole is so completely different. What a delight, and what, again, a rare and cherished opportunity.

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Orpheus surprise: Orpheus and Eurydice at ENO

Orpheus and Eurydice
English National Opera
London Coliseum
Balcony B29, £10
1 October 2019
ENO page

Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice is a smart choice for a choreographer directing opera. It’s short, it’s filled with ballets, there are only three cast members, the music is relatively simple and the story is straightforward and famous. Wayne McGregor’s effort is nevertheless mixed, on balance in an interesting way, composed of surprising successes and surprising failures.

One failure is not so surprising given who McGregor is, and McGregor would no doubt virulently refute my verdict on this particular aspect. True to his wont, he has populated the creative team with artists from diverse walks. As has happened more often than not, he seems to have made little effort to unify these artists around a central vision (also known as ‘directing’). As a consequence Orpheus is a batty hotchpotch, mysterious ideas running wild in one medium with no corollary in any other. What is the framing device? What relation has the video to the costumes? Why the naked Orpheus? Questions all that have no answer.

It cheesed me right off, but it made the treasure of McGregor’s great success all the more prized and surprising. It might be the bit of the opera everyone knows but ‘Che farò’ is a great aria, even more than usual when in the hands of Alice Coote. Though complaining of a cold on this opening night, she was sensational here, singing with her characteristic blazing intensity bent to an unbearably tragic renunciation of the world. McGregor has the sensitivity to know that Coote’s voice is this scene’s greatest strength – the lights dim but for a spotlight on Coote alone, and the rest of the stage is bare. He might have meddled, but he did not, and in this focussed concentration Coote’s phenomenal performance shines as it should.

The failure that surprised me was in McGregor’s treatment of the Dance of the Furies. Mesmerising stage images, in collaboration with his creative partners, are very much in his area of expertise (as Autobiography and Woolf Works among countless others show). Here he achieves that when taking everything away for ‘Che farò’, but something goes seriously awry earlier on. As Furies the dancers are decked out in Greco-Harry Potter-Keith Haring peculiarities, which glow in the dark. Seeing the usual McGregor dislocations at manic pace in these costumes with this music, silly enough anyway, was enough to give me the giggles. Add in that unexplained naked Orpheus and the whole thing looked a mess – maybe it could charitably be termed a hellish torment of aesthetics.

Let us speak of non-McGregor things. Coote was a little rocky in the first half, perhaps with that cold, but she warmed into the second half to sing as well as I’ve ever heard her, which is very well indeed. The sopranos Sarah Tynan as Eurydice and Soraya Mafi as Love were perfectly pleasant, though in no way on the same level. Perhaps they can never be in this opera. In other musical respects this was a shambles. The chorus was messy and out of tune, the orchestra, conducted by Harry Bicket, sounded like they were sightreading. Perhaps a necessary sacrifice given Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus is rushing fast on the heels.

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Super-slick: A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic

A Very Expensive Poison
The Old Vic
Circle E31, £12
11 September 2019
Old Vic page

A Very Expensive Poison is the first of Lucy Prebble’s plays I’ve seen, and it surpassed my expectations in its establishment of extravagant theatricality within a real-life drama, and vice versa.

She has the perfect subject for it in the conspiracy to murder Litvenenko. Reece Shearsmith can have a whale of a time as a cartoonish Putin, and the means of Litvenenko’s death fully qualify as ghoulishly absurd. But there is always a serious grounding to pull back to, not just the murder but a questioning of the relationship between the British and Russian states.

This is a get-out-of-jail-free card that enables Prebble and the superbly talented creative team (I’ll call out director John Crowley and designer Tom Scutt, but the production was super-slick in every sense) to laugh with impunity. Whenever I thought, ‘Well, isn’t this some anti-Russian propaganda’, they were able to defuse my criticism by making the same comment themselves, except through a deft joke that questions the British people’s complicity and indifference.

It’s all extremely skilful, very entertaining, and admirably imaginative – showing, with a little less seriousness than the Almeida’s The Doctor, that the scope of new theatre to stretch the medium is broad and multicoloured.

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What theatre can be: The Doctor at the Almeida

The Doctor
Almeida Theatre
Circle E23, £20
4 September 2019
Almeida page

Could theatre be forgiven after David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat? Fortunately I couldn’t have had a more serendipitous follow-up to mop away the displeasure and make a case for the art than The Doctor. Rob Icke’s latest is as intelligent, nuanced, challenging and open-ended as his productions always are, and a welcome reminder of the potential of theatre to expand and enrich.

The character flaws and inconsistencies of Juliet Stephenson’s doctor are what I have thought most about. She is interpretable as a stereotype: a cold logician, a grammar nazi, a fierce opponent to the emotion-driven witch-hunts of social media. But her first appearance is not one of cold statement of fact; she is lost, confused. We’ll later learn she’s reporting her partner’s suicide. Early on in the play, after her ‘cold logician’ persona has been established, she mentions the doctor’s dilemma, that in a hundred years’ time her treatments will seem barbaric – suggesting her conviction is not out of egoism but necessity.

The seeds have been sown for the play’s showpiece, a televised debate where the doctor must defend actions that have led to a public scandal. She does two things here that perplexed me. Her use of the word ‘uppity’ is accused for its racist overtones and a comparison is made to the n-word. She is asked, why not say that word, if it just a word? In my head I argued that the racist implications of that word are far greater than of the word ‘uppity’, such that the word cannot be used by a white person except with the intention to cause harm. Not the case for ‘uppity’, surely. But the doctor falls silent. Does she not see the argument? Is she shocked or offended at the comparison? Do the high stakes of her predicament become suddenly clear? Is her silence consistent with the character that has been formed for her, of a ruthless advocate of reason?

The second thing is her reference, on live television, to a young friend, the doctor’s only friend as far as we have been shown. The doctor describes her friend as a woman born in a man’s body, who thankfully now ‘has a choice’. How could she be so insensitive as to out her friend without permission, on television? How could she be so insensitive as to describe her friend’s behaviour as a choice? Is this consistent with the thoughtful, caring doctor we have seen her to be?

Inconsistencies bother me, but I have to allow that these are most likely intentional, and most likely are particularly sophisticated manifestations of the overriding question of Icke’s The Doctor – how do we make our judgements? This is the plot’s premise: is the doctor right to refuse to let a Catholic priest visit a Catholic girl dying of a self-inflicted abortion? And the same question guides the production’s most obvious conceit, whereby the cast is gender- and colour-blind. How does our perception change, when we realise a character played by a black woman is a white man, or a black man a white Jewish man, or a young woman a young man?

Such descriptions can only be a simplification, answers Icke. He doesn’t go further, as far as I can see, and assert that these simplifications are ‘bad’. He says only that they are simplifications, and demonstrates the consequences of the resultant biases. Indeed, it would be contrary to the spirit of the play to assert such judgements. This thoughtful, sensitive balance is perhaps why I admired the play, and have thought about it, but not loved it. The play’s emotional core, the doctor’s relationship with her partner and his suffering from dementia, are delicately finished but still secondary to that question, explored with a rigour that casts the rest in shadow. But for demonstrating how considered, stretching and fascinating theatre can be, Icke and his team deserve full credit.

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Vile: Bitter Wheat at the Garrick Theatre

Bitter Wheat
Garrick Theatre
Grand Circle B1, £25
14 August 2019
Play site

It was within my power to know I would hate Bitter Wheat. In a way it is refreshing to see something that seems to have no redeeming qualities. But primarily it is profoundly unenjoyable.

I knew nothing of Bitter Wheat’s writer and director David Mamet beyond his being the guy behind Glengarry Glen Ross, which I think is a strong play and film. Bitter Wheat tells me that his muse belongs in the 80s. What is so offensive about this play is Mamet’s apparent desire both to capitalise on the Me Too movement and to undermine it. He takes as his subject sexual abuse predicated on vile power dynamics within the creative industries, and what he seems to have to say about it is that you can’t hold a good mogul down. This may, sadly, be true – but surely it is not something to be celebrated and enjoyed. Oh those mischievous misogynists and their japes!

John Malkovich is Mamet’s perfect partner in crime. His ego is slathered across the stage like the slimy excretion of a monstrous slug, smothering his co-stars with its sticky ooze, raising a noxious odour that can’t be escaped even if you close your eyes and think of England. Throughout I tried to question myself: how intentional is the awfulness, and if it’s intentional does it make sense? But the ultimately flimsiness of the play, its vacuous lack of point, its toothless, gummy, sucking bitelessness, convinces me that Bitter Wheat is nothing but a power trip for Mamet and Malkovich. Rehearsals must have been a nightmare.

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A come-down: Rusalka at Glyndebourne

Glyndebourne Festival
Blue Upper Circle Standing 2, £15
7 August 2019
Glyndebourne page

Hindsight tells me that with a little extra forethought I could have predicted Rusalka at Glyndebourne would make a disappointing sequel to Tristan at Bayreuth. Rusalka intrigues me but has never moved me; and despite its acclaim director Melly Still’s The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne only annoyed me with its sexual faux-cutesyness. How different could her Rusalka be? And while Glyndebourne standing places are good value they hardly offer opera’s finest experience. But my love for Sally Matthews overrode all such considerations, which have anyway never been my strong suite.

After all that, Matthews didn’t sound her best. She has stunned me several times over the years, most powerfully in a concert performance of The Turn of the Screw. Her voice then was one of those with the quality of liquid gold, a pooling well of thick loveliness that flows with exquisite musicality. I don’t know if she’s changed or if it was just an unfortunate consequence of our high vantage point, but while the liquid was there the fluidity wasn’t: it was as though something obstructed the main channel of her sound, squishing that liquid loveliness round the edges to leave the whole sounding waffly and thin. The sound was pretty but without that focus Matthews’s musicality didn’t communicate, and the result was waring to listen to.

The rest of the cast was strong but didn’t make much of an impact; I attribute this to the opera itself, which doesn’t have a whole lot beyond the title character. In fairness I should admire Evan LeRoy Johnson’s Prince, a virile and confident sound combined with the physicality of an American football player; wholesome, heroic, but without the depth and ambiguity that Bryan Hymel brought to the role at the Royal Opera House a few years ago. Zoya Tsererina was ideal as the Foreign Princess, oozing disdain through a laser-bright sound, but her air time is limited. Patricia Bardon was uncharacteristically reticent as Ježibaba. Alexander Roslavets sang with great dignity as Vodník, musically very elegant but perhaps in fact a bit too graceful to make the most of this uneasy role.

Robin Ticciati often weaves magic at Glyndebourne (as with La Damnation de Faust earlier in the season) and I expected the Dvořák to be right down his avenue. But his case for Rusalka, while strong on heady fumes, didn’t crystallise into that clarity which has occasionally helped me sense the piece’s siren otherworldliness. Perhaps Ticciati was a little too measured in his folk rhythms, leaching from them the wildness that can hurl the characters forwards into their tragedy; or perhaps he was too handicapped by a Rusalka who didn’t lead the sound as she needs to.

Still’s production, new in 2009, is looking a little tired. No doubt had I seen it ten years ago, before I’d seen her Cunning Little Vixen with its focus on dance and a nicified vulgarity of the natural world, and before I’d seen the countless Laurent Pelly productions that use similarly dysmorphic costumes to convey society’s trappings, I might have thought it was more original. But time does not wait for such ideas, and I’m sure even Still would choose to direct it differently now. I do admire her commitment to the footlessness of Rusalka; but that was not enough to make up for what is perhaps my core complaint, that Glyndebourne is a different venture altogether from Bayreuth. News flash.

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Worth it: Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth

Tristan und Isolde
Bayreuth Festival
Mitte Loge, Reiner 3 Platz 9, €230
1 August 2019

I had fallen into a rut of assuming I was about as likely to go to Bayreuth as to the moon i.e. only under an extreme change of circumstance. Fortunately I have a friend of a more pragmatic bent who procured two tickets for Tristan through a set of simple steps he claims not to be able to remember. Thus I saw Tristan at Bayreuth, and could judge for myself whether it was worth four days’ travel, five days’ leave, an extravagant ticket price, the lack of air conditioning and the lack of surtitles.

Unfortunately for my future budget and leave allowance one visit has only fired me to see more. The major downside of Bayreuth – the lack of surtitles – is insignificant beside the benefits of seeing Wager’s music performed by that orchestra in that theatre; and of being in a place that has the history Bayreuth does, deeply uncomfortable though it is to be forced so continually to think about the horrific uses to which this music has been put and the implications of enjoying it today as I do.

Having now seen the Festspielhaus I’m put out that there are no other opera houses like it that I know of. Its design is both interesting as a physical manifestation of Wagner’s views on opera and an acoustic phenomenon, a fact interesting in its own that his ideas should prove so successful. In orientation it’s similar to a cinema, few seats with an obstructed view. The orchestra pit is so deeply recessed that it forms a moat between stage and audience. Given the height and plainness of the proscenium arch the effect is like watching an enormous cathode ray tube, prompting the fun thought that cinema and television represent the immersive Gesamtkunstwerk.

With such a recessed pit I expected the orchestra to sound distant, and indeed they did, a little, from my original seat in the Mittelloge. But when I swapped to my friend’s seat further around I was overcome: the sound from the invisible players is as rich, textured and detailed as you could wish, and exquisitely performed under Christian Thielemann. But the truly amazing thing is in the balance with the singers. While the orchestra is fully present and audible, the attack is entirely with the singers – and this gives them the freedom to play with text and voice production as I’ve never before heard in a live Wagner performance. This, surely, is the best way to hear Wagner.

Even with this boost, the calibre of the singers was mixed – by which I mean Stephen Gould as Tristan was horrifyingly flat for almost all of it, a musical assault that could not be forgiven no matter the fortitude of his sound. More unalloyed joy could be found in Petra Lang’s Isolde, whose tirelessness and beauteousness made her seem almost a different singer from when I’ve seen her before. Everyone else sounded superb. I expected this from Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke but Christa Mayer as Brangäne and Greer Grimsley as Kurwenal were completely new to me, Mayer in particular a revelation in her control and variety of tone.

Now to the staging. Thinking I knew Tristan pretty well I had felt sanguine about the lack of surtitles; but as well, I think, as being challenging full-stop for a non-native speaker the difficulties are exacerbated when the production gives you nothing to go by. Even so, I was mostly mildly bemused by Katharina Wagner’s Regietheater in the first two acts, and enthralled by her coups de théâtres in the third; which made the raucous boos that greeted her curtain call by far the worst thing about Bayreuth. Even if I had no idea what she was getting at two thirds of the time I could nonetheless see and appreciate the extraordinary time and effort represented by the production, and to be in the midst of an ugly sound indiscriminately expressing a mob’s annoyance was unpleasant – especially given Bayreuth’s early history of tribal reactivism.

Act III was Katharina Wagner’s unmitigated triumph. In Tristan’s monologue we go with him into a feverish nightmare where false Isoldes taunt him ghoulishly. I can’t decide if my favourite was the one were her head fell off or the one where she toppled appallingly from a great height. You get the idea. Gould looked as about as bothered as he did about singing the right notes, but I guess you can’t have everything.

The previous two acts, however, left me at sea. Act I was in a kind of Escherian staircase, around and through which there was much rattling. Act II seemed to have a bathroom theme: Kurwenal attempted to climb out of a department store’s bathroom section but the rungs kept on falling off, T&I were slowly munched and then unmunched by a towel rail-cum-solenoid-cum-bike rack, Tristan made a tent out of a shower curtain which he then sweetly decorated with fairylights. I completely fail the Regie test and have no idea where even to begin to join the dots with Wagner’s Tristan. No matter: Thielemann, his orchestra, this theatre and this score made it all worth it.

8 Nov 2019, 2:32 p.m.


What's the Regie test..?

Surface-level: Sarah Connolly at the Wigmore

Sarah Connolly and Malcolm Martineau
Wigmore Hall
Stalls E3, £5 (under-35s)
23 July 2019
Wigmore page

Brahms: Ständchen, Da unten im Tale, Feldeinsamkeit, Die Mainacht, Von ewiger Liebe
Mahler: Kindertotenlieder
Wolf: Auch kleine Dinge, Gesang Weylas, Nachtzauber, Kennst du das Land, Die Zigeunerin
Bridge: Day after day, Speak to me my love
Howells: King David, Come sing and dance

Gurney: Desire in spring

In honesty there is little that sunk in with me in this recital, classy though Sarah Connolly was and dexterous though Malcolm Martineau was, as they both seemingly always are. With the exception of the Kindertotenlieder this is music I either admire but so far have little passion for (the Brahms and Wolf) or don’t know and don’t yet care to know better (the Bridge, Howells and Gurney). I’m sure the songs couldn’t wish for a more tasteful handling than they received from Connolly and Martineau, but my impression of the evening is of a gently passive enjoyment, rather than an active interest.

Is that something I should complain about? Connolly is so competent and so controlled, and feels anything but cold in her operatic performances. But I wonder if she enjoyed this recital. I’m sure she took pleasure in the music and the sophisticated programme, and the intimacy with Martineau. Intimacy with the audience, however, is another matter. I felt the presence of a hard veneer, a protective shield that let through technical mastery but held back passion and purpose. I’ve heard far rougher Kindertotenlieder but I’m not sure I’ve heard a cooler.

I’m not sure I should complain: Connolly is a singer of beauty and elevated musicianship. And perhaps I’m just annoyed with myself that the main thing I took from this recital was an admiration of Connolly’s palimpsest-y dress.

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The ultimate test: Carmen at the ROH

Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Stalls B11, £15 (staff offer)
16 July 2019
ROH page

After enjoying Barrie Kosky’s Carmen so much when I first saw it I perhaps held fire a little too long before encountering it again, jumping in towards the end of what feels like the umpteenth run with leads I’ve never heard of. A test of a production if ever there were one.

I’m disappointed I didn’t enjoy the production more; like with watching Richard Jones’s Boris Godunov the second time round I’ve got a vague dread that the punch of Kosky’s revolutionary ideas dissipates on digestion, and that if you’re not thinking about the ways it’s making you rethink the opera, there might not be that much left.

To be fair, the production’s cause is derailed by the cast, who would be nobody’s first choice. Anaïk Morel is in many ways a wonderful Carmen, with richness where she needs it, a weighted grounding that secures each note and access to a light and elegant style. But, perhaps underrehearsed as the last of many casts within a run, she looks uneasy in Kosky’s concept – neither allowed to execute the traditional Carmen I’m sure she could do admirably, nor enabled to unlock the different plane of meaning Kosky has introduced.

Morel’s discomfort is only made more acute by her José, Arnold Rutkowski, who turns in one of the worst professional performances I’ve seen. His posture bodes ill from the start, communicating so completely a desire not to be there that were it intentional it would be masterful. Vocal warnings sound early on, Rutkowski always quiet and at the top awry in timbre, rhythm and pitch. Breaking point, literally, is reached in the Flower Aria, where he falls completely off the note, having to end valiantly in falsetto. That he deserves credit for completing the aria gives you an idea of its catastrophe. Watching him through the rest of the opera was like watching an ordeal and I shared his obvious relief when it finally ended. Not his night, and I can only hope it can be attributed to severe mitigating circumstances.

So with a Carmen who looks lost and a José who can’t sing this is a test indeed for any production. Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo doesn’t leave much impression; Ailyn Pérez as Micaëla looks like she’s making the best of a bad decision. The orchestra under Christopher Willis are fine, good enough for a familiar score at the end of the season. The chorus look like they’ve had enough of running up and down those stairs but sound in good voice. The small troupe of dancers is again stunning. And ultimately I suppose Kosky’s production passes the test: even if it didn’t light up the stage this time, I’d still take it over its hoary Zambello predecessor.

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