The Ukrainian National Opera of Dnipro is currently touring Great Britain for two months, filling theatres everywhere for performances of Madam Butterfly sandwiched with Carmen and a handful of Aidas. The poignant endpoint each evening is the unfurling of a Ukrainian flag for a punchy, courageous, heartfelt rendition of the national anthem. It’s an exhausting schedule for the company of singers and musicians but, in spite of personal grief and national trauma, they bring entertainment that’s highly enjoyable and engaging. With Carmen, for instance, even those who don’t normally watch opera can scarcely stop their toes tapping to Beat Out That Rhythm On A Drum or refrain from humming along with the universally familiar strains of Toreador and Habenera.

Katerina Timbeliuk is wonderful as feisty, seductive femme fatale, Carmen, the striking girl from the Spanish cigarette factory. Her stage presence as the alluring, castanet-clicking temptress is mesmerising, especially when she casts sly, sparkling, knowing glances into the audience as she toys with men’s emotions, reeling them in like infatuated fishes on hooks, all too ready to throw them back when she tires of them. Her full-throated singing as she gently sways in self-indulgent, provocative pleasure is all Katerina needs to wrap naive, silly soldier Don Jose round her little finger. In no time at all, overwhelming obsession drives him to abandon his poor mother, his sweet fiance Micaela (sweetly sung by Alyona Kistenyova) and his entire military career. At times, Sorin Lupu conveys Jose’s passionate infatuation and subsequent frustration, jealousy and anger well, though in general, larger doses of dramatic expression would be welcome. Jose is dumped, of course, as soon as flamboyant, fine-voiced toreador Escamillo (Rucovita Petru) struts onto the scene in all his finery. The big celebrity hero instantly takes flighty Carmen’s fancy and her tragic fate is sealed. Soldier Jose has a knife. (Oh-oh, it’s just like in that Delilah song!)

In this traditional production, the thrilling overtures and orchestral interludes are played with the curtain still down and sets are kept simple and effective as befits frequent relocations for one and two night performances. Backcloths depict the crumbling stones and archways of the town where the soldiers are based and the broken brickwork of the cigarette factory where the girls work. A fire and simple cut-out rocks set us in the mountain hideout of our band of gypsies and smugglers, a group who sing in particularly vibrant and scintillating harmony together and earn special applause. Tables, barrels and ubiquitous, hard-working choral ensemble create a busy tavern, while big Corrida posters take us to Carmen’s final, fateful bullring terminus. In contrast to the other factory girls’ bright, colourful skirts Carmen dresses in handsome black and white spot, in black with red and, for the tragic finale, in luxuriant blood-red red.

The French words of the Spanish characters in Bizet’s powerful, tuneful 1875 operatic drama, now with added Ukrainian tones, appear in English above the stage. Below the stage thirty plus musicians create the emotional fireworks that fuel the drama and permeate the iconic melodies of Bizet’s superb music, taking us compellingly from light-hearted fun and frivolity, love, joy and the heart-rending Victorian-style melodrama of the song about Jose’s poor, dying mother through to fiery passion, fateful forebodings and deep, deep tragedy. A most enjoyable production.

Eileen Caiger Gray

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