“Come on Carmen, this is a joke”
OperaUpClose scored a huge success with their Olivier-award-winning production of La Bohème and since then have continued with their mandate of creating a more intimate, accessible style of opera to try and entice new and more diverse audiences. Their latest production at the King’s Head sees them turn to Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen, which has been uprooted from Spain and relocated in a modern-day North London in a world of gang-related crime. Rodula Gaitanou and Ben Cooper have penned an abbreviated new English libretto and Elspeth Wilkes’ musical direction pares the score down to piano and guitar but in the search for brevity, accessibility and relevance, far too much has been lost.
This Carmen lives in a cluttered bedsit with a group of seemingly-bohemian types who run an Oliver-style pickpocketing racket. She forms an instant connection with security guard José (who breaks up the initial singing in the pub) but when boyfriend Escamillo breaks out of jail and hatches a criminal masterplan, she is torn between the two men, between the chance of going straight or continuing a life of crime. But even with the truncated running time, the story struggles to come through. There’s little clarity in the new book, a woeful lack of characterisation to make us care about either man or Carmen for that matter and a series of question marks that plague the production, like the complete lack of explanation given for the Spanish-influenced music – having ex-con Escamillo singing ‘Toréador’ over and over is just simply bizarre.
Gaitanou, who also directs, uses the limited space of the King’s Head awkwardly throughout, but she is not helped by an ugly, overly fussy design that Joana Dias and Jamie Vartan has contrived to produce. There’s a misguided attempt to replicate La Bohème‘s innovative staging to starting the show in the bar as we queue to take our seats: Christina Gill’s seductive Carmen flirts with many a man as she sings the famous Habanera. But the encouragement to join in with the syncopated clapping works against us actually hearing the singing and once the number is done, there’s then an extended break whilst we finally take our seats by which time the mood is gone.
Fortunately, the singing was of largely excellent quality. Gill exudes sassy attitude as Carmen and Fleur de Bray and Olivia Barry had great fun as her girlfriends, complementing each other beautifully as well as essaying some off-the-cuff comic business with the boys. Christopher Diffey’s Don José and Nicolas Dwyer’s Escamillo both sang well, in the face of limited opportunity. But the sense of fun that the cast seem to be having never translates into the material and thus across to the audience, and the subsequent shift into tragedy lacks depth, pathos and believability. A disappointment.