Opera Review: Bizet’s Carmen – Singapore Lyric Opera – 1 Sep 2019, Esplanade Theatre

Bizet’s CarmenSingapore Lyric Opera

Director: Nancy Yuen
Music Director: Joshua Tan
Choreographer: Jeffrey Tan
Set Designer: Ricky Chan
Lighting Designer: Adrian Tan
Chorus Masters: Terence Toh, Rose Loh

Carmen: Jopei Weng
Don José : Jonathan Charles Tan
Escamillo: Martin Ng
Micaëla : Janani Sridhar
Zuniga: Dennis Lau
Frasquita: Joyce Lee Tung
Mercédès: Maggie Lu Pei Yun
El Dancaïro/Morales: Alvin Tan
Remendado: Kane Teo

Singapore Lyric Opera Chorus
Singapore Lyric Opera Youth and Children Programme

KL City Opera Chorus
Singapore Lyric Opera Orchestra

1 September 2019
Esplanade Theatre

Review by Aileen Tang

The ragamuffins of Seville

Bizet’s Carmen has so many iconic melodies that even opera newbies will find some of its iconic melodies, such as the “Habanera” and “Toreador Song”, familiar. With a rich score and story that runs high on emotions of passion and rivalry, it is no wonder that Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) decided to present this opera once again – its fourth, after performances in 1998, 2002 and 2011. 

It has been said that an opera company is as good as its last chorus member, and the combined forces of the SLO Chorus, KL City Opera Chorus, and SLO Youth and Children Training Programme were indeed vocally robust. Carmen’s ragamuffins never fail to evoke awws, and these were no exception. Under the SLO’s training program, the children’s chorus featured commendable singing, but the directorial decision to have them march in place, where other productions may have had them march up and down in imitation of the change of guard, made it feel a little static.

Space wasn’t adequately made use of – in the same scene, the flower stall was poorly placed, cramping one side of the stage. The set and lighting designed by Ricky Chan and Adrian Tan provided classic backdrops, which effectively set the context for each scene. Unfortunately, the aesthetic was marred by tableaux of actors who were almost always too crowded, their exits resembling commuters getting off a train at rush hour. The Esplanade Theatre — by no measure a small one – looked uncomfortably cramped. I enjoyed the dances and their choreography at the start of Acts 2 and 4, but they would have been more compelling to watch if there hadn’t been a crowd milling about behind them.

Carmen and Don Jose

Instead of their usual multinational casting, SLO featured more Singaporeans in the main roles than for any of their previous productions. Jonathan Charles Tay and Martin Ng were both vocally suited for their roles as leads Don José and Escamillo respectively – Tay’s Flower Song was effortlessly sung, with lovely floated notes at the end, and Ng’s Toreador Song swaggered as befitting the matador equivalent of a rock star.

But direction left something to be desired. Most of the time, the leads stood awkwardly as they sang, moving from one place to the next as though they had been directed to reach different spots marked ‘X’, with little characterization in between. We couldn’t empathize with Micaëla’s (played by Janani Sridhar) fear or Don Jose’s desperation at being caught between loyalty and love. There was little chemistry between the actors – whether between Don José and Micaëla, or even Don José and Escamillo. Where was the tenderness of “Parle-moi de ma mère!” and the bitter rivalry in “Je suis Escamillo, toréro de Grenade”? Even when addressing each other in song, the actors looked as if they were each performing in their own recital.

It was left to Jopei Weng’s proud, impertinent Carmen to draw the audiences in emotionally.  Hers was a Carmen that did not so much seduce us as make us believe in her fearlessness and refusal to bow to circumstances. Her every stride and action were seamlessly in character; this was Carmen, not Weng in the role of Carmen. Also delightful was the gypsy quartet of Frasquita, Mercédès, El Dancaïro and Remendado – played by Joyce Lee, Maggie Lu, Alvin Tan and Kane Teo. The sleeper hits of the production, they were ravishing in their ensembles, whether quartet or duet, and refreshingly humorous to watch. 

Dancers in Act 4

Overall, the production felt rather stilted. The more dramatic scenes, such as Carmen’s escape and the fight between the two love rivals, were directed in such a matter-of-fact way as to be unintentionally humourous. The final scene in which Don José tragically kills Carmen, after a lukewarm exchange between the two where one expects sparks of passion, was painfully anti-climactic.

There were some beautiful solos from the SLO orchestra conducted by Joshua Tan, but also many rough edges as a whole. The same can be said for the entire production. It’s always exciting to experience each re-imagining of a long-time favourite, but as always for the familiar, expectations are so much higher – a hurdle that SLO was sadly unable to overcome this time round.

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