Oksana Volkova’s Carmen at the Aurora Opera House was the best I have seen since Christa Ludwig’s to Domingo’s José in Vienna some 40 years ago. She has it all: an absolute command of the stage, a richly seductive and polychromatic voice, her sinuous and voluptuous physique yet never vulgar mien, the never-changing fiery, free spirit which underlines the role, evident when she emerged from the cigarette factory. It was a superbly unforgettable experience which will be regretted no end by those who missed it . The audience was hers from the start.

To think that Volkova was an almost last-minute replacement for the mezzo-soprano originally cast for the role and who fell ill. To think too, that for a number of days rehearsals had to go on without a mezzo-soprano. Yet there was no trace of that because the interaction between Oksana Volkova and the rest of the cast was as smooth as could be.

It was also a blessing that Roberto de Biasio’s Don José was a very well-rounded interpretation, a sad study in degradation of character all for the love of and jealous possessiveness he has for Carmen. She seduces, discards at will, free in life and free in death too. She remains constant to herself. José, basically a decent character, reduces himself to committing murder.

Carmen was a worthy production for celebrating 40 years of opera in Gozo

It is also a blessing that there is Micaëla’s character counter-balancing Carmen’s and this role was very well-interpreted by soprano Giuliana Gianfaldoni in her appearances in Acts I and III. Unfortunately, baritone Marcin Bronikowski never really cut a dash as Escamillo, the vain matador-cum-seducer.

The supporting roles of Frasquita (soprano Madina Karbeli) and Mercedes (mezzo-soprano Lara Rotili) were very good and when it came to ensemble singing such as in the extremely difficult Act II quintet with Carmen, El Dancaíro (tenor Eduardo Santamaría Álvarez) and El Remendado (baritone Gabriele Ribis) the co-ordination and crispness were very well-handled. Here I wondered why such roles could not have been taken by some of our very talented local singers.

Another secondary role, Zuñiga, was sung by bass Gianluca Breda whose beautiful boomingly clear voice could carry greater roles, something Bizet did not cater for in this masterpiece of his. A smaller role, Moralés, was interpreted by baritone Francesco Baiocchi.

Oksana Volkova (Carmen) far left, Gabriele Ribis (El Dancaire) seated, Eduardo Santamaria Alvarez (El Remendado) standing, Lara Rotili (Mercedes) seated, Madina Karbeli (Frasquita) far right – a quintet of bandits in Carmen’s Act II.Oksana Volkova (Carmen) far left, Gabriele Ribis (El Dancaire) seated, Eduardo Santamaria Alvarez (El Remendado) standing, Lara Rotili (Mercedes) seated, Madina Karbeli (Frasquita) far right – a quintet of bandits in Carmen’s Act II.

Novella Tabili’s artistic direction ensured the production’s slick, smooth flow. The sets were less “Spanish” than usual, hardly at all, and Act III hardly looked as if it were really set in the mountains. Yet, this underlines the basic humanity and universality of the plot. It also allowed for more concentration upon character development.

The crowd scenes were excellently managed, with a very well-trained chorus, sharply on cue, singing heartily with a finely balanced texture and, weren’t those children stage smart! It worked well indeed and whereas in standard productions of Carmen there is dancing only in Act II and the beginning of Act IV there were several other  dance sequences here and there, all to choreography by Deborah Agius (of Naupaca Dance Factory), which  enhanced and projected the atmosphere evoked by the music.

It was fabulous music from beginning to end and so well-executed and controlled with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra under Colin Attard’s dynamic direction.

The purely orchestral ones like the mostly boisterous and festive prelude to Act I, the soothing introduction to Act 3 (with Rebecca Hall’s prominent flute part) and the menacing prelude to Act IV were jewels. This production was a worthy one for celebrating 40 years of opera at the Aurora.

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