Irish National Opera at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, on 7 March 2022

Originally set to open on 22 March 2020, tonight’s production of Bizet’s Carmen was the first high-profile cancellation of the initial Covid lockdown. Now, with the buzz of a nearly-full Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, looking forward to the sight of a busy stage with full chorus and dancers, this long-delayed opening night really does feel like the circle has (almost) closed. We’re back – for now.

Tonight’s Carmen is a dreamy whirl of colour and elegance, lending a rosy hue to the familiar tunes. From the first notes of the overture, conductor Kenneth Montgomery – best known for his work in Mozart – draws a clean, rich tone from the INO Orchestra. For many of us, even hearing a full orchestra again is still a novelty, and the expressive power of the score, with the warmth of Bizet’s orchestration, is ever-present throughout the evening.

Musical power in the pit is equalled by the singing on stage, with a strong presence from the chorus, along with an enthusiastic children’s chorus. Paula Murrihy, still remembered for her role in INO’s blistering 2018 production of Bluebeard’s Castle, may seem an unlikely Carmen. Ignoring the usual ‘look’ associated with the role allows for a different approach – Murrihy’s Carmen is immaculate, at times snake-like, and her singing, from the famous ‘Habanera’ onwards, is simply electrifying. The cast around her is well-matched, with tenor Dinyar Vania lending a keen sensitivity as Don José, while baritone Milan Siljanov packs a fiery and persuasive vocal presence as the swaggering Escamillo. Soprano Celine Byrne sings beautifully in the role of Micaela, both in her exchanges in the first act and, most especially, in the much-loved aria ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ (I say that nothing frightens me), movingly performed.

Brendan Collins (Dancaïre) and Dinyar Vania (Don José)

The depth of this cast, however, is really seen in the ‘secondary’ roles, none of whom disappoint. Baritone Brendan Collins, who at this stage must know every comprimario (supporting) role in opera, delivers a brilliant performance as the smuggler Dancaïre, his voice conveying the crisp energy of the role to excellent effect. Ably matched by Eamonn Mulhall as Remendado, the pair are joined in the second act by Murrihy, with soprano Rachel Croash (Frasquita) and mezzo Niamh O’Sullivan (Mercédès), bringing tight ensemble and smart wit to the quintet ‘Nous avons en tête une affaire’ (We have business in mind) – a wonderful moment.

The stage design, set and costumes, is beautiful – and lit superbly – creating a vivid, believable world. Rather than the gritty charms of old Andalusia, however, the silhouetted palm trees, pink sunset tones and neutral built structures suggest somewhere much further west – southern California, perhaps. With the women in espadrilles and flowery frocks, and the men in uniforms, cream suits or old-style denim, the visual language hints at American pop art and the 1950s. The smuggler’s camp in the mountains is now a well-built storage facility. It’s tempting to imagine the production concept as a slice of ironic postmodernity – as if a glamorous woman has put on this show for her friends, taking the role of Carmen for herself, perhaps as a way of working through something, and why not?

All the same, Carmen is an unlikely story to stage in the same week as International Women’s Day, and recent productions elsewhere have questioned – even subverted – the gender violence contained within the opera. The approach here is one of light and colour. The ending remains unaltered, but achieves a transparency and artfulness that, if anything, renews attention on the question: why must Carmen die? This is a beautiful and smart show, gifted with fabulous stagecraft, and well worth seeing.

Paula Murrihy (Carmen)

Georges Bizet: Carmen
Sung in French (libretto by Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy), with English surtitles
Co-Produced by Irish National Opera, Opera Philadelphia and Seattle Opera
Director: Paul Curran; Set/Costume Designer: Gary McCann; Lighting Designer: Paul Hackenmueller (re-created for Dublin by Pip Walsh); Choreographer: Muirne Bloomer; Conductor: Kenneth Montgomery
Cast: Paula Murrihy (Carmen), Dinyar Vania (Don José), Celine Byrne (Micaëla), Milan Siljanov (Escamillo), Alan Ewing (Zuniga), Rachel Croash (Frasquita), Niamh O’Sullivan (Mercédès), Brendan Collins (Dancaïre), Eamonn Mulhall (Remendado), Seán Boylan (Moralès); INO Chorus & Children’s Chorus
INO Orchestra

Photography by Ruth Medjber