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Smart and sassy Carmen heads for Dublin stage

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton


New production: Paula Murrihy from Tralee will perform the title role in Carmen

New production: Paula Murrihy from Tralee will perform the title role in Carmen

New production: Paula Murrihy from Tralee will perform the title role in Carmen

The story goes that the morning after the night before that premiered Verdi's Rigoletto on the stage of La Fenice in Venice, they were singing some of the songs in the streets.

Should history repeat itself in Dublin next month, it won't be 'La donna è mobile' that you'll hear. It'll be the 'Toreador Song' from Bizet's much-loved Carmen.

It's just one of the many exquisite earworms (sadly not my phrase - it came from a Seattle Times review) to feature in what no less an authority than Tchaikovsky described as "a masterpiece in the full meaning of the word".

Irish National Opera is bringing Carmen to the stage of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin for four performances over the course of a week, beginning with a 6pm show on Sunday, March 22.

It's a co-production with Opera Philadelphia and Seattle Opera, meaning the stunning sets and amazing costumes have already dazzled audiences in the US. The cast, though, is unique to Dublin.

At a reception hosted by the French ambassador here, marking the launch of this most popular of French operas, there was an opportunity to hear from some of them.

The mezzo soprano Paula Murrihy, who hails from Tralee, will sing Carmen. She's been combining rehearsals for the Dublin run with the starring role in what she describes as a very different production of Carmen at the Frankfurt Opera.

"It's a favourite part," she tells me. "Carmen is such an intriguing character. The more you get to know her, the more interesting she is. Smart, sassy. Somebody who takes charge of her own destiny. Somebody you can identify with."

Celine Byrne from Kildare plays Micaëla, the sweet soprano, the good girl from home, who's Carmen's foil.

Dinyar Vania sings Don José, Carmen's original love interest. Milan Siljanov, a Swiss bass-baritone, packs a powerful punch in the role of the bullfighter Escamillo.

The hits just keep on coming. Feet tap to Carmen's habanera - 'L'amour est un oiseau rebelle' (Love is a rebellious bird).

There's tenderness and poignancy in Micaëla's duet with Don José - 'Parle-moi de ma mère' (Tell me about my mother - Micaëla has brought him a kiss from her, and a letter proposing her as a potential wife).

Then there's Carmen's come-on to José - 'Près des remparts de Séville' - and we're still only in Act One.

Of course, there's that 'Toreador Song' to come, not to mention the tear-jerker, Don José's plaintive plea to Carmen - 'La fleur que tu m'avais jetée' (he's kept a flower she tossed at him when she was flirting with him earlier). She's having none of it.

"It's amazing to think," INO's artistic director Fergus Sheil remarked, "that Carmen wasn't a success when it was first staged."

That was in Paris, 145 years ago this month. The conservative public wasn't ready for this tell-it-like-it-is tale of a feisty female who works in a cigarette factory, and very clearly has a mind of her own. "Immoral", "overlong" were two descriptions of an opera Bizet had really hoped would mark a breakthrough for him.

By the time it returned to the Paris stage eight years later, it was a huge success all over Europe.

Bizet didn't live to see it. Three months to the day after the premiere, on his sixth wedding anniversary, he passed away. He was just 36.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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