Carmen1The Moscow State Opera brought George Bizet’s Carmen to the stage of the Bord Gais Theatre for five nights only, ending on Saint Patrick’s Day. One of the most popular operas today, Carmen is a story of love, obsession and freedom told in four acts.

This production was the first to be produced in cooperation with the Picasso Foundation, linking Bizet’s 1875 bull fight to the pictures by Picasso circa 1930s-’50s. The usual red velvet curtain was replaced by bright Picasso prints, one rising and the other pulled aside to reveal a minimalist stage, the blue background lending both an openness and sense of ambiguity to proceedings. This contrasted with the traditional costumes and approach to musical performance, meaning lovers of the opera were not left feeling at a loss.

The opera opened explosively with Ergeny Brazhnik conducting the MSO Orchestra in the overture, preparing the audience for the musical journey ahead. The appearance on stage of the Irish Celine Byrne, playing Micaëla, was met with uproarious applause, as was the later group of ‘street urchins’, being performed by the Bray Junior Musical Theatre School Choir. Byrne easily matched the standards of the world-renowned opera company, showing her vocal strength by matching the chorus of soldiers in ‘Sur la place chacun passe’. The children performed well in high-pressure conditions singing ‘Avec la garde montante’, clearly enjoying the warm reception they received.

Nadezhda Babintseva’s Carmen was undoubtably the star of the night, drawing all eyes from the moment she was located in the chorus of cigarette girls. Her ability to control the tone of her voice – at times sultry and provocative, others mournful or clear and challenging – was exquisite, as was her diction throughout the night. She showed no inhibitions in her acting style, as should be the case when portraying such a character. Ruslan Yudin’s Don José had some very strong points vocally, though his diction and slightly wooden acting made him fall short of Babintseva’s standard.

The most memorable point of Act 2 was the quintet, ‘Nous avons en tête une affaire’ thanks to the quality of performance and obvious enjoyment in the cast. Petr Solokov’s Escamillo singing the Toreador Song was a very close second, Solokov proving himself a strong bass and most logical suitor to Carmen, more closely matching her abilities than Yudin.

After a compelling Act 3 – an almost Shakespearean foretelling the doom to come – Act 4 sees the firstCarmen2 real incorporation of Picasso artwork during the bullfight (other than the possibly intentional cubist bull to be found on door to Lillas Pastia’s inn during Act 2, and the puppet interlude at the beginning of the same Act). The extra colour and semi-cubist design are an interesting addition and bring extra vivacity to proceedings, as is the statue of the matador and bull, which the chorus dealt with somewhat awkwardly. The brightness of the stage soon contrast the emotions portrayed as Jose murders Carmen out of desolated jealousy, bringing the opera to a dark close.

While it would have been interesting to see more integration of the Picasso artwork throughout the opera, what there was worked well and added a new facet to the show. Hopefully there will be more of the same in the future of the MSO, as the collaboration between artforms has the potential to bring so much innovation to any musical production. The Artistic Director of the MSO, George Isaakyan is to be commended for taking such a worthwhile risk.

From first cymbal crash to final mournful note the MSO production of Carmen was entertaining and at times moving. The orchestra gave all-round stellar performances, even while hampered by the position of the pit making them sound distant at times. While Babintseva may have stolen the show, everyone involved should be proud of the memorable production.