When Micaëla comes on Act III, looking for the estranged Don José at the smugglers’ camp, she sings that Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante—“I tell myself that nothing will frighten me”. One could sense, in this, its first full-staged production in eighteen months, Opera Hong Kong telling itself much the same thing.
Opera Hong Kong’s travails, it must be remembered, didn’t start with the pandemic. Rigoletto, its last production to grace the Cultural Centre stage, was plagued by the city-wide protests which had resulted in closure of the venue just the week prior. This time, after months of cancellations and postponements, the company still had to navigate COVID-19 regulations for both audience and performers: overseas singers endured three weeks in quarantine—making the trip reminiscent in duration of the sea voyages of yore—rehearsing over Zoom, while the chorus and dancers performed fully-masked (to ward off the Spanish flu, perhaps). That the production was a revival of the company’s 2018 Carmen was itself more the result of serendipity than design: it was the work whose cast was ready and able to perform.
Revivals are rare in Kong Hong. This sold-out run of Carmen, which makes use of a stylish rotating set, provides evidence of the concept’s viability.
Opening night starred young Canadian soprano Carolyn Sproule in what is apparently a COVID-delayed role debut. Sproule’s rich low tones, as well as a sort of North American forthrightness, hearkened back to some Carmens of yesteryear, of a time when Marilyn Horne sang the part. Local favorite Louise Kwong shone as Micaëla; she had sung the role in 2016 with Musica Viva and then with the Opera di Roma where she had been part of the young artists programme. Georgian tenor Mikheil Sheshberidze was Don José and Belgian Pierre Doyen was a dashing and bright Escamillo. Among the supporting, Apollo Wong brought his mellifluous bass to Zuniga; he deserves larger roles.
The three principals alternate with Polish soprano Gosha Kowalinska as Carmen, Irakli Kakhidze making a complete complement of Georgian Don José’s and Li Yang as Micaëla; Doyen sings throughout.
Visiting Italian conductor Gianna Fratta cut a dash both in the pit and at curtain calls where, sporting silver in her braid and a bright red cummerbund, she gave Carmen a run for her money.
Although a revival, the work was considerably re-staged, and simplified in the process. Gone were some of the more avant-garde elements, replaced with realism. Less can often be more; this is maybe one of those times.
Opera Hong Kong has two more productions scheduled for the rest of the year: a semi-staged version of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi over the summer and Madama Butterfly in the Autumn. May their luck hold.