(An abridged version of this review appeared in The Straits Times, Singapore, on Monday 25th April 2016)
As modern-day Carmens go, Christine Rice is one of the best. Singing the title role in this concert version of Bizet’s famous opera, she was not just vocally compelling but conveyed through facial inflexions and body language a potent image of Carmen’s alluring, captivating and sensuous femininity. Casting Andrea Care as her troublesome and jealous lover, Don Jose, was a master-stroke. A gloriously expressive tenor, he too conveyed so much character through the voice that the limitations of performing opera on the concert platform were effectively swept aside.
In fact there was such tangible chemistry between Care’s Jose and Rice’s Carmen that one wondered why she was ever even tempted by Shen Yang’s Escamillo. Not so much vocally uneven as downright lumpy, he had a few projection issues. More significantly, from his act two entry, striding cheerfully down a side aisle of the auditorium in a shabby suit and waving to friends in the audience as if he were an audience member returning late after one too many at the interval bar, he seemed uneasy in the role of a triumphant matador and lover.
Not so Li Jing Jing. If anything her obvious self-possession and assertiveness sat strangely on the role of Micaela, a character usually associated with weakness and timidity. But she sang so enticingly that, for once, Micaela came across as a credible rival to Carmen for Jose’s affections. Li’s vast biography in the programme book – longer than any of the others in the programme book with the exception of, strangely, that of the chorusmaster of one of the choirs taking part - implied a struggling for recognition (the old adage sprang to mind: “the longer the biography, the less it has to say”), yet this gorgeous voice has real star quality.
The adult chorus, made up of the Singapore Symphony Chorus and NAFA Chamber Choir, was very good indeed, if a little weak in the lower voices, while the Children’s Choir was simply outstanding. They stole the first act with their march through the auditorium and on to the stage, their absolute perfection of tone and pitch, their tightness of ensemble and their authentic French diction.
The Singapore Symphony Orchestra does not usually do opera, and it showed. Despite conductor Lan Shui's demonstrative direction - projected on to a big screen at the back of the auditorium so everyone on the packed stage could see it – they lacked the flexibility to bend to the singers, and it often seemed that orchestra and voices were on different wavelengths. Nevertheless a symphony orchestra playing an operatic score does produce a very different result than an opera house orchestra doing the same thing, and this was no exception; a lot of inner detail was revealed which even those of us who profess to know Carmen inside out would have found refreshingly revealing.
There was a narration given by Joseph Lee which, drawn from the original play rather than the opera libretto, purported to come from Don Jose's meditation from his prison cell awaiting his execution. And this proved to be far less of a distraction than it might at first sight have appeared, for Lee had mastered the art of blending in to his musical background, and it certainly added illumination for those unacquainted with the opera.
Illumination of the electric variety constituted the principal element of staging for, while the concert hall platform was devoid of props (apart from Lee's chair) and looked every inch a concert hall platform, it was lit from above by a variety of subtle shades which were unusually effective because director David Edwards had the entire performing body (except Carmen, Don Jose and Lan Shui) in white, so that the whole stage seemed to absorb the subtly shifting colours. It worked well enough to lift the performance out of being a mere concert-hall performance and into the realms of a dramatic production.