Carmen, Imagined: Carmen from the Orchestre National de Lille

Bizet – Carmen

Carmen – Aude Extrémo
Don José – Antoine Bélanger
Micaëla – Gabrielle Philiponet
Escamillo – Florian Sempey
Frasquita – Pauline Texier
Mercédès – Adélaïde Rouyer
Moralès – Philippe-Nicolas Martin
Le Dancaïre – Jérôme Boutillier
Remendado – Antoine Chenuet
Zuniga – Bertrand Duby

Chœur Maitrisien du Conservatoire de Wasquehal, Chœur de l’Opéra de Lille, Orchestre National de Lille / Alexandre Bloch.
Concert performance.

Filmed at the Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle, Lille, France in July 2019.  Available to watch on the Orchestre National de Lille’s YouTube channel.

The enterprising Orchestre National de Lille has used its page on the YouTube to bring several of its recent concerts – including a Mahler symphony cycle – to a wider audience.  This concert performance of Carmen was part of the orchestra’s Nuits d’été festival in 2019.  In the event, this is more than a simple concert performance.  Entrances and exits for the cast, chorus and children’s chorus are tightly choreographed and, with the principals all singing their parts without sheet music, it very much feels like a staged performance in all but name.

Photo: © Ugo Ponte / ONL

Especially as noted illustrator Grégoire Pont provides some interesting visual accompaniment to the action.  Of course, watching this filmed record of the evening doesn’t quite give us the same impact as those in the hall would have experienced.  However, one is able to get a decent impression of what Pont was working on achieving.  The space above the choir stalls, behind and on both sides of the orchestra, is used a blank canvas to provide these visuals, whether images of buildings or abstract shapes.  At their most striking, they magnified the music – whether in shapes accompanying the ‘chanson bohème’ at the same tempo, or the vista of a bullring coming into view in the big Act 4 opening chorus.  The stars that accompanied the ensemble cries of ‘liberté’ at the end of Act 2 were also impressive, the auditorium and stage seemingly alive with the stars of freedom.  Similarly, the lighting was used intelligently to provide atmosphere and complement the visuals.  Again, it’s difficult to appraise their full efficacy watching at one remove like this, but they did seem to aid in setting and creating a suitably theatrical atmosphere.

Photo: © Ugo Ponte / ONL

The orchestra engaged an entirely francophone cast to perform the work, so it was surprising that rather than use the cast to deliver the dialogue, the francophone Belgian comedian Alex Vizorek was invited to give a narration, while perambulating around the room.  His interjections ranged from comments about the conductor’s hairstyle to how the ‘cheap’ seats were just as good as the ‘expensive’ ones.  This became rather tiresome after a while (though significantly less so that Barrie Kosky’s comatose female narrator in his staging) but it was interesting to hear him cite some passages from Mérimée’s novella and the original libretto.  That said, I do regret that the cast was not given the opportunity to perform the dialogue instead.

Photo: © Ugo Ponte / ONL

The magnificently-named Aude Extrémo took on the title role.  The benefit of the filming was to reveal how expressive an actress Extrémo is, her face projecting the full gamut of the emotional range of the part.  Vocally, it took a while for her to hit her stride, her opening ‘habanera’ was rather tastefully dispatched, without the voluptuous chestiness it ideally needs.  Her diction wasn’t always clear, to the extent that I wondered if she had a memory lapse in that opening number.  As the evening progressed, Extrémo rose to the part, dispatching her final scene with authority, her plush, juicy mezzo soaring seemingly without limits – although I did wish that she had made more of the text, singing with it rather than over it.  An interesting assumption, certainly, from an artist who has much to offer.  Her José was the Montréalais tenor, Antoine Bélanger.  He’s the owner of a serviceable instrument, one that sounded to my ears, at least here, to be more on the lyric side.  This gave his José a somewhat timid edge, initially, but also meant that when he did allow the jealousy to emerge in his Act 3 confrontation with Florian Sempey’s Escamillo, we gained a fuller sense of his character’s journey.  The voice, as recorded, sounds slightly wiry and narrow, although it filled out nicely in the final scene.  He sang his flower song with introspection, rising to a well sustained B-flat in voix mixte.

Photo: © Ugo Ponte / ONL

Sempey negotiated his big number carefully, the awkward tessitura dispatched confidently.  As always, his French diction gave much pleasure and he sang the Act 3 confrontation with José with searing bravado.  Gabrielle Philiponet sang her aria with eloquence, although the top didn’t quite sound completely under control, the vibrations loosening.  She’s the owner of an attractive, silky soprano that I imagine would be well suited to the lighter lyric rep and her diction was clear.  The remainder of the ensemble was taken with voices that were appropriate to the roles and lived off the text.

Photo: © Ugo Ponte / ONL

The chorus, from the Opéra de Lille, sang with tight ensemble and an agreeable blend of vibratos.  The gentlemen, in particular, sang with impressively firm tone.  The children’s chorus had been well trained and made an pleasingly raucous noise.  The orchestra was on excellent form for their chief, Alexandre Bloch.  There was a suitably lean and athletic string sound, with intonation spot on in those perilous high violin passages in the Act 4 prelude.  The performance also benefitted from some immaculate percussion playing, helping to reinforce the rhythmic impetus emerging from Bloch’s baton.  The horns were always well behaved.  Bloch’s reading was nicely swift for the most part, although I did feel that he luxuriated slightly too much in the opening to the flower song, though that did mean he allowed some wonderfully lyrical wind playing to come through.

Photo: © Ugo Ponte / ONL

This was an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, revealing some interesting francophone singers one might not ordinarily get to hear.  The chorus and orchestra were excellent and Bloch’s reading always felt logical and allowed the work to progress at a natural pace to its inevitable conclusion.  Certainly worth seeing, and thanks must be extended to the orchestra for making this performance widely available.

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