The star of Opera Hong Kong’s recent Carmen might just be the set. A minimalist pair of interlocking rotating spirals coupled with imaginative projections and evocative lighting set the scene, both literally and figuratively, and provided a fluid emotional and visual backdrop to the music and drama. Imagery is drawn directly from Picasso; the plain revolving set provides a backdrop for projections and lighting, throwing up shapes and colors reminiscent of the surrealist painter Di Chirico, while some of the costumes seem to echo some of Goya’s darker moments.
This production, designed and implemented by Jean-Romain Vesperini and Bruno de Lavenère, was commissioned for Opera Hong Kong. The company has, for obvious financial and artistic reasons, tended to engage in co-productions shared with other leading companies; being able to eschew these for complete creative control is a sign of both development and creative confidence.
Overseas principals are taking part in their China or Hong Kong debuts.
That being said, opera is about singing and acting, perhaps especially so in a work like Carmen which is so well-known. Whether by chance or design, Opera Hong Kong’s two vocally-strong casts are a study in contrasts. French tenor Jean-François Borras’s lyrical reading of Don José hearkens back to French tenors of an earlier era, while Chilean tenor Giancarlo Monsalve delivers a full-throated and testosterone-laden Don José in the tradition of singers like Mario del Monaco and José Cura. Monsalve’s finale has unexpected visual and emotional parallels to A Streetcar Named Desire. While undoubtedly coincidental, it is a reminder that there is much about Carmen that can be construed as social commentary, undercurrents which keep the work relevant.
Franco-Armenian mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan shows why she is one of the most sought-after of the new generation of Carmens. While well within the range of traditional characterizations, Abrahamyan brings the character up-to-date, abandoning the swaying of hips and flouncing of skirts for a psychological portrayal of a woman succumbing to fatalism. Relative newcomer Marie Karall, on the other hand, might seem like Carmen’s somewhat less cynical younger sister, almost a flirty ingenue who gets caught up in events that spiral beyond her control. Escamillo, the toreador, can come off a cardboard cutout, a mere foil or plot device. Italian Vittorio Vitelli and French Jean-Kristoff Bouton both deliver characters rather than caricatures, the former robustly Latin and the latter lyrically Gallic.
There are too many local singers in the other roles to mention them all, but one continues to see the local talent pool deepening. Pronunciation, which has tripped up some previous performances of the French repertoire, while not yet universally perfect, shows considerable progress. Both the Opera Hong Kong Chorus and the Children’s Chorus (which included some pretty young tikes) give accomplished performances that are among the production’s vocal highlights.
The performances are conducted by Yves Abel, whose experience and knowledge of this particular work are evident in the playing of Hong Kong Sinfonietta.
Carmen continues at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre through 20 May.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books. He translated the surtitles for this production and contributed the program synopsis.