RTÉ Concert Orchestra presents ‘Carmen in Concert’ at the National Concert Hall, 31 May 2014.

Framed within the heady dusts of nineteenth-century Spain, Georges Bizet’s Carmen charts the ill-fated seduction of Don José. His sultry temptress takes the form of a gypsy, bored with the tedium of her work in the cigarette factory. The captivating femme fatale Carmen embarks upon a quest to woo the hapless soldier, and take him away from his betrothed Micaëla, with tragic results.

In their concert performance of this opera, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, under the directorship of  John Wilson, brings the provocative world of Carmen to life with palpable vigor. From the opening toe-tapping bars of the Prelude, the sheer lyricality and evocative colourings of Bizet’s orchestration floods the auditorium of the National Concert Hall. With a decisively paced, exciting, interpretation of the score, Wilson brings with him an understated elegance to the podium. His commanding presence is balanced beautifully with the stellar vocal cast, headed by our own acclaimed mezzo-soprano, Patricia Bardon.

No stranger to the role of Carmen, Bardon, festooned in a vivacious, yet chic, flamenco-inspired dress, delivers a stunning performance from start to finish. Her depth of tone, and facility of her instrument, is at times breathtaking. Bardon’s portrayal is energetic, charismatic and fearless. She is as equally comfortable in the poignant sweetness of her upper register as she is in the gritty underbelly of her lower range. Her physical engagement with the audience and the orchestra throughout the performance adds a welcome theatrical flavour to the night’s entertainment. With no need for provocative gestures or feigned bravado, Bardon’s Carmen is one of strength and control.

Equally enthralling is the seasoned Gwyn Hughes Jones who takes on the role of Don José with ease. While physically stiff at times, Hughes Jones provides a convincing contrast to the charming magnetism of Carmen. With whispers of Pavarotti scattered within his tonal complexion, the pleading sincerity of his tenor voice is hypnotic. The vocal chemistry between Bardon and Hughes Jones is a pleasure to behold. Sarah Fox’s portrayal of Micaëla seems tentative at first, but by the end of the first act she is holding her own. Sometimes lost within the crescendo swells of the orchestra, Fox’s technically-sound delivery is enchanting against the sensual musical landscape of Bizet’s score.

The unabashed exuberance of Carmen is mirrored in Zoltán Nagy’s convincing depiction of the toreador Escamillo. His entrance onto the stage is awash with charm and sex-appeal. On occasion the bass-baritone struggles to be heard over the energetic pulse of the orchestra, but his voice has a golden texture filled with future potential. Notable attention is directed to the minor roles of Zuniga (Jonathan Best),  Moralès (Gyula Nagy), Frasquita (Rachel Croash), Mercédès (Gemma Ní Bhriain), El Remendado (Patrick Hyland), El Dancaïre (Benjamin Russell), and the chorus members of Horizon Voices who all contributed very fine performances to the production.

Providing narration on the night was the immensely capable Simon Butteriss. While his beautifully annunciated interludes proved fundamental to the unfolding plot, his lack of microphone left some audience members straining to hear in the balconies.

Undoubtedly, Carmen in Concert was a resounding success, and this was echoed across the halls of the national concert hall through standing ovations and rapturous applause.