About OperaUpClose This production company is a registered charity which produces new English versions of opera, and who also premiere a brand new opera every year. The company makes the genre more accessible to the public by touring its shows and by working a programme which involves various communities (including schools). Credit them too, for their work in developing the careers of artists and performers (whether established professionals or just starting out), and all of this happens on a shoe string it seems and so is extremely commendable. Centrally, my excitement to review, was around the very fact that a version of Bizet’s wildly popular opera was appearing locally, so congratulations to OperaUpClose for making what is often invisible outside London, and the like, visible.
CARMEN Set outside a cigarette factory in an outback setting in South America, the female workers take a ‘fag’ break and attract the attention of a small group soldiers who are milling around. Carmen is flirtatious and the men are bewitched by her. Don Jose’s thoughts however, are elsewhere, and it is not until Carmen tosses a flower his way that his head is turned. After a month spent in prison, Jose meets again with Carmen, he feels duty bound in his serving role within the barracks but the sexually confident, Carmen is a complete distraction. She teases him, and it is deliberate provocation on her part. Jose gets physical and slaps her down to the ground, and we get our first glimpse of his inability to control his aggression. Earlier a card reading predicted death for Carmen, and, sadly, death comes to her at the end. Carmen is said to be a story of obsession rather than love.
I understand it to be the case that Carmen is the best-known example of Opéra-Comique, and, in this version anyway, the comedy is present but more through the visual than the words. Carmen’s drunken swaggering and her constant leaning in on the male characters went on too long without change, that it almost became something to giggle at. If they were to track Carmen’s movements with some kind of computer technology over the small central area of the stage it would make a very busy map! And the costume design is quite absurd it seemed to me to be more Molière than Gypsy Flamenco, but, again, this may be the design intention.
It is impossible for a quartet of talented musicians to resonate those stunning songs to the soul pricking heights that a full on orchestra would manage. Sitting at the rear of the auditorium the operatic score and the singing met with my ears in the same way as if were being played over radio waves; so though the words were in English they were not that clear and I wanted to really feel the music to my very core, but it never arrived. The opera singing is very sweet, and as it should be, of course, is the real winner and the main delight about this show.
Pictured: Flora McIntosh (Carmen) Anthony Flaum (Jose) Photograph by Andreas Greiger
Review by Debra Hall in an official capacity attended the press night showing of Carmen at The Belgrade Theatre on 19 January 2016