Opera Up Close made its name with an award-winning Bohème at Kilburn’s Cock Tavern and has broken new ground in radical, small-scale in-yer-face productions of the classics in venues like the King’s Head. This new, streamlined Carmen is playing on a main stage, albeit the smallish Soho Theatre, for an ambitious 7-week run.
We were promised a show lasting just two hours and fifteen minutes, so cuts were brutal – much of the dialogue and the choruses – but the approach flowed naturally from the resources on stage: just seven singers and four instrumentalists (violin, cello, flute ably directed from the piano by Berrak Dyer). Artistic director Robin Norton-Hale’s new version is freshly but unselfconsciously up-to-date; every word communicated.
I have a confession: Carmen may be the most perfect opera ever written, but I always experience a sinking feeling in Act 3. Here at the gypsy encampment the story sags, the chorus murmurs and poor Micaela’s cloying aria… cloys. Not here: no sooner had the fateful cards been dealt, and Micaela arrived than Escamillo and Don José were engaging in fisticuffs; Micaela delivered her missive from Mamma and suddenly we were hurtling into Act IV. Genius. The plot didn’t suffer and the momentum keeps ratcheting up from that point to the bull-ring finale.
Norton-Hale’s portrayal of Carmen as just another victim of domestic violence is a clear-eyed corrective, but threatens to diminish her enigmatic power: yes, like two women a week in Britain today, she’s murdered by an ex-lover. But she’s fearless and prone to violence herself. Flora Macdonald sang the role with vibrant conviction if not a huge dynamic range (the seductive seguedilla needs to feel murmured rather than loudly sung). Anthony Flaum was a darkly brooding Don José, his aggression erupting believably out of vulnerability, while Richard Immergluck’s Escamillo was mellow in voice but decidedly the less virile of the two. Micaela (soprano Louisa Tee) threatened to steal the show with her secure vocal allure. As if her role isn’t sufficiently thankless, here she was crucified by the costume design, forced to mix a gaudy yellow summer dress with Doc Martens and a loud-checked tweed poncho. Was the wilfully unfeminine, unflattering attire intended to show an only-skin-deep equality between the sexes? Certainly the easy, scheming companionship of Frasquita (Emily-Jane Thomas), Mercedes (Melanie Sanders) Remendado (Lawrence Olswroth-Peter) and a charismatic Dancairo (Tom Stoddart) came vividly across.
Enormous energy and focus are required of the instrumentalists in this unforgiving acoustic, and while pianist, violinist and flautist attacked important solos with élan, the cello was too often sub fusc and lacking in projection. Together with the singers they achieved, nonetheless, a denouement of alarming intensity. If you want your Carmen stripped of exotic conventions, make your way to Soho.
Carmen, Opera Up Close, Soho Theatre until 19 September (other casts will be performing during the run) www.operaupclose.com