If you want to be sure of filling an opera house, the director of the Lisbon Opera once told me, you put on a production of Carmen.
But it wouldn’t be fair to say that the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), until recently suffering from falling ticket sales, has merely followed this seasoned advice. Plans for the show began in late 2007, for instance. But the real reason next week’s production at Taipei’s National Theater is all set to be a major artistic event rather than just a popular blockbuster is that Taiwan is importing, virtually wholesale, a charismatic production that has already wowed audiences in both London and Sydney.
Originally commissioned by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (in conjunction with Norwegian National Opera), and then transferred to the southern hemisphere’s equivalent, the Sydney Opera House, this production was the work of celebrated director Francesca Zambello. Its aim, she said, was to resurrect the exotic flamboyance and dangerous allure of southern Spain as it was perceived during the lifetime of the composer, Georges Bizet.
The last time I encountered Zambello’s work was in a DVD of an operatic version of The Little Prince (reviewed in the Taipei Times on May 12, 2005). I was totally overwhelmed. It contained all the traditional attractions of the story itself, plus innumerable original imaginative effects. This, I thought at the time, was what opera productions really should be like. And now Taiwan is to see the same director’s treatment of the most popular opera ever composed. No wonder tickets are already hard to find.
First, more about the nature of the event. Opera Australia has brought a large contingent of singers and backstage staff to Taiwan in order to recreate the original production here. Sue Olden, technical operations and projects manager for Opera Australia, who is supervising this co-presentation in Taipei, said the NSO had been eager to work collaboratively on an opera, and to combine guest and local singers, plus technicians, in a joint venture. This was not only for the benefit of audiences but also for the cast and staff, working together on a project over an extended rehearsal period. It would give the Taiwanese involved the opportunity to gain experience and skills from a major performing opera company, she said.
As a result, there will be around 250 people at work, either in view or backstage, when the curtain rises on Thursday. The cast includes children, gypsies, aristocrats, beggars, a horse and off-duty workers from a cigarette factory.
Taiwan is contributing the soloists for all the smaller roles as well as one singer, Chen Mei-lin (陳美玲), for one of the large ones. The Taipei Philharmonic Chorus and the Taipei Philharmonic Youth and Children’s Choir are also both involved.
The three main roles are double-cast. The American mezzo-soprano Kirsten Chavez will sing the frank and sensuous gypsy Carmen on Thursday and July 11, while Hungarian-born mezzo Viktoria Vizin will take the part on the evening of July 10 and the afternoon of July 12. Both have substantial reputations and each will be well worth hearing.
Meanwhile, Carmen’s lover, Don Jose, will be sung by Richard Troxell (Thursday and July 11) and Justin Lavender (July 10 and July 12). Lavender is well known to Taiwan audiences, having sung here in Madame Butterfly and The Damnation of Faust to strong effect.