Proms at St Jude’s: Clare Presland gets inside the mind of Carmen

clare presland

clare presland - Credit: Archant

As the Soprano tackles the daunting task of playing one of opera’s most performed roles, she tells Michael White there’s no use just ‘going through the motions’ with Bizet’s fiery, sexy heroine.

Some Carmens do it with castanets, some with broken plates, others with nothing at all. But whatever her props, the moment when the dusky temptress from the tobacco factory struts her stuff in Act II of Bizet’s opera ranks among the most iconic gestures on the lyric stage. Which makes it hard to bring off, knowing that countless singers have been there before and laid down templates for how it should be done.

Clare Presland, who’ll be strutting that same stuff as star of the concert Carmen that opens the St Jude’s Proms, knows the problem.

As she told me recently, “This is the opera everyone has seen – I think it gets performed more often than any other – and everyone has an idea of how the title role should look and sound. So it’s intimidating to take on.

“But when you do, you have to find your own way. And the important thing is not to demonstrate the list of necessary qualities – the fire, the feistiness, the sexuality – but just try to become her.

“She’s a woman who lives dangerously: every day could be her last. She’s strong but vulnerable, free but caught up in her fate. It’s complicated. As a singer it’s your job to get inside her mind and make her live, rather than going through the motions”.

Carmen is a part that’s been on Presland’s wish-list for a long time. In an interview she gave last year to the Daily Telegraph after winning an award for young performers, she described it as her dream-role. And she’s actually sung it once before, straight out of music college, for a little company in Devon.

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But this will be the first time on a serious scale - because the concert at St Jude’s is a sort of dry run for a full production at Nevill Holt, one of the UK’s up-and-coming country opera venues, based near Market Harborough, Leicestershire.

That Nevill Holt’s music director Nicholas Chalmers is also music director at St Jude’s Church has established a fortuitous connection between the two places, which explains why Neville Holt brought its Boheme down to the Suburb for the Proms last year. This Carmen is a follow-up.

And though St Jude’s won’t get a fully staged performance - sadly, no mantillas, suits of light, or bulls – it gets the voices. Good ones, with a dazzling recent graduate from Covent Garden’s Jette Parker programme for young artists as Jose, David Butt Philip.

Equally impressive is Clare Presland’s meteoric rise over the past three years. It was in 2012 that she made her professional debut, with a small but significant role in ENO’s Death of Klinghofer that got her noticed as a young mezzo to watch.

Since then, she’s been fast-tracked through several other modest-sized but noticeable parts in ENO productions – including the creation of a brand new role in Tansy Davies’s Between Worlds which premiered at the Barbican in April. Based on the events of 9/11 in the Twin Towers, Between Worlds was controversial but high-profile. And although the character that Presland played was nameless – as was every character onstage – she brought it memorably to life (and death) in a performance that, she told me later, had engulfed her.

“I was 200 percent engaged by that woman, and it was an incredible privilege to be the first to play her. I love being involved in new work, with a living composer and a sense of venturing into the unknown. It makes the learning process harder but it’s absolutely worth it”.

Venturing into the unknown may not be the thing with Carmen. But a different challenge that Presland faces is that she’s spent the past few months rehearsing it twice over – with different roles in different productions.

Alongside the lead for Nevill Holt, sung in French, she’s been playing Carmen’s gypsy confidant Mercedes, in English, for the revival of Calixto Bieto’s raunchy staging at the Coliseum.

It’s a schizophrenic undertaking, and requires a firm grip on whichever night/show/language is the right one. Otherwise, disaster.

“So far, so good” is her verdict. And she insisted that she loved both parts, as “interesting in different ways”. But there’s no doubt about which one she loves the most. And when she does it at St Jude’s, expect another 200 percent performance.

Clare Presland stars in Carmen, St Jude’s, Sat 20th, 7.45pm.