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Ellen Kent's Carmen
Ellen Kent's Carmen

Ellen Kent’s production of Bizet’s Carmen: Review

Home » Reviews » Ellen Kent’s production of Bizet’s Carmen: Review

Ellen Kent has been touring operas for donkey’s years (32 years, to be precise), and I’ve been watching them throughout that time. There are certain things you can bank on with this company.

If you start out fearing opera is pretentious, an Ellen Kent show is a good way to confront and dispel those fears. The sets may be creaky, the costumes dated and the direction in need of refreshing. But the singers (garnered these days, mainly from Ukraine) are gifted, technically-accomplished and sincere in their commitment to the music.

On this tour, we have three operas: Verdi’s La Traviata, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and tonight, Bizet’s Carmen.

Ellen Kent's Carmen

We reviewed Carmen on Thursday. This famous opera tells the tale of a lovable mother’s boy, Corporal Don José, who is tempted into bad ways by sultry, smouldering gypsy, Carmen, who works at the tobacco factory in Seville (now a tourist attraction). Her particular skill (the tourist board website tells us) is to roll cigars between her thighs. (And they say smoking is bad for you!) After persuading her adoring soldier boy to desert and join her band of gypsy smugglers, this archetypal femme fatale then dumps him for the more glamorous toreador, Escamillo. Steaming hot temptress plus jilted latin lover… you can see where it’s heading.

Natalia Matveeva (who recently shone as the maid, Suzuki, in Butterfly) is an assured and rich-voiced Carmen. A truly modern incarnation of the role would recognise a deeper psychology – a capable, ambitious and passionate woman, whose only route to fulfilment lies through her sex appeal – but that’s for another company. 

Davit Sumbladze as Don José could sit a little more easily in his role but has a fine voice. Sumbladze’s rendition of “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” in act two is quite beautiful. 

Escamillo, as performed by Iurie Gisca, is determined, in true toreador style, to be the centre of attention, belting out notes which fill this large victorian auditorium, whilst posturing after the manner of Miles Gloriosus (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1966). The audience roars its approval.

If you are already affirmed in your love of opera, and dreaming of Covent Garden, La Scala or the Met, this is not the Carmen for you.

On the other hand, if you like the music but fear you might feel out of place among those snooty cognoscenti (aka me and my intellectual middle class mates), an Ellen Kent production might prove just the “gateway drug” to live opera you’ve been seeking. 

Perhaps, one taste will be more than enough. Or perhaps, you’ll leave the theatre knowing you need more opera in your life. I hope you do.

Senbla presents Opera International’s award-winning Ellen Kent production featuring the Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv with international soloists at The Opera House Manchester from 10 to 12 January 2024.

Written by
Martin Thomasson

A winner (with Les Smith) of the Manchester Evening News award for Best New Play, Martin taught script-writing at the universities of Bolton and Salford, before becoming an adjudicator and mentor for the 24:7 theatre festival. Over the years, in addition to drama, Martin has seen more ballet and contemporary dance than is wise for a man with two left feet, and much more opera than any other holder of a Grade 3 certificate in singing.

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Martin Written by Martin Thomasson