The Tatarstan State Opera’s Carmen

At the end of a talk which I gave last year on the evolution of staging operas, I was asked by a member of the audience whether I had seen a traditional production of Carmen in recent years. The answer was no, contemporary directors and designers seeking at all costs to avoid the cliché of flamenco dresses in a sun-baked Seville. Well, I have to report that my response has been overtaken by events. In March I came across such a performance in The Hague, but it was more a case of the opera company travelling to me, than me travelling to them, for it was given by the Tatarstan State Opera Company as part of a tour of Belgium and the Netherlands. You may, like me, have to consult your atlas to ascertain the home of this group. It lies on the Volga, some 500 miles east of Moscow. In operatic terms, that is pretty remote. Yet the phenomenon of lesser known opera companies from Eastern Europe touring the West has become quite familiar. At the risk of over-generalisation, their mission would seem to be to earn valuable Western currency by offering a combination of popular pieces, big-voiced singers, and traditional productions. Their assumption that there is a significant demand for this combination would seem to be justified by size and enthusiasm of the typical audiences which attend the performances.

One can too easily fall into the trap of being snobbish about this end of the operatic spectrum. True, audiences now tend be less tolerant of a painted backcloth of a town as the scenery; and the authenticity of the setting may be unconvincing if, as here, some of the dance sequences seemed to combine Cossack movements with castanets – from the Spanish Steppes? In general, pronunciation of the French libretto was poor; and the orchestral playing rough and unsubtle. The crowd scenes were tamely conventional. But if the overall effect of George Kovtun’s production was that of an operetta rather than a tragedy of passion, was not the original conceived as opera-comique, rather than grand opéra? And then there was the singing. With the system of multi-casting of roles used by these touring companies, it is not easy to find out who is singing what on a particular night; the programmes do not provide the information and I had to ask a member of the theatre staff. It is not as though the artists are beginners or unknown. The Carmen, Angelina Shvachka, has performed for the Bolshoi Company and I recently heard the Don José George Oniani, a Georgian tenor, sing at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. She has exactly the right voice for the role, with strength in the lower register and richness at the top; she also acted with appropriate allure. He has a brilliant, gleaming upper register but was wooden on the stage. Katarzhina Mackevich was miscast as Micaela: both her stature and her voice are too big for the role and her efforts dramatically to make herself demure and virginal made this already embarrassing character even more so. Yuri Ivshin blustered effectively as Escamillo, but although the bass voice of Vladimir Vassiliev as Zuniga resonated impressivelynot a word of his French could be understood.