There are many ways of slicing and dicing Bizet’s opera Carmen — Welsh National Opera, for instance, has staged three entirely different productions within living memory.
Their current version, which dates from 1997, is a queer fish. Set by designer Christian Fenouillat in a huge, dingy, three-sided box, there is no sign of southern Spanish heat or sunlight. Lighting is at a BBC4 Saturday night Scandi-drama level of dimness. Then, right at the last minute as tragedy strikes, the whole production suddenly comes alive in a blaze of vivid colour.
It’s entirely up to the cast and orchestra to bring the show to life, therefore — they get little help from their surroundings. In Oxford, the title role is taken by American mezzo Kirstin Chávez. Slithering out of the crowd of fighting cigarette factory girls — there is no explosive first entrance here — she flicks her hair and wiggles a thigh as she begins her seduction of Don José. There’s a smile on her face as she begins a generally strong vocal performance. Gwyn Hughes Jones is a soulful José — his delivery of “I kept your flower with me in prison” is a highlight of the evening — but this José is not a man who radiates much sexual chemistry. Similarly, Kostas Smoriginas is without the usual macho swagger exhibited by bullfighter Escamillo. Jessica Muirhead gives a memorable performance as Micaëla — sounding bashful at first, but becoming a forceful character as events unfold.
But if things look visually gloomy on stage, there’s always highly energetic conductor James Southall to watch. A WNO repetiteur since 2008, he plainly revels in every second of Bizet’s score, and draws some magic detailing from the, as always, highly responsive WNO orchestra.