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Carmen

5 December 2017

Sex, Power and Suppression

Carmen

by Georges Bizet, libretto Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy

Ormond Opera, at Richmond Unitarian Church, 25th November to 3rd December

Review by Suzanne Frost

Carmen might well be one of the hardest operas to stage. With the hit density of a Britney Spears best-of album, popular tunes come hard and fast, scene by scene, and the melodies that almost force you to hum along to take away from the impact this tragic opera should have. Keeping it serious, avoiding clichés and finding something new to say in the age old canon – that is the difficult task every director faces with Carmen. All the more praise so, for Ormond Opera and director Mark Burns who brings a proper ambitious Regiekonzept to the tiny Unitarian Church Building in Richmond. Hearing the usually so vivacious overture come tinkle from a shrill piano is sobering but, with a lot of the oom-ta-ta – and some of the exuberant temperament of the music – gone, the mind is able to sharply focus in on the story that is actually told and all the undertones of the libretto become crystal clear.

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Burns shifts the plot from Sevilla to a 1980’s England, easily identifiable by a graffiti wall covered in punk rock posters, Labour slogans and anti-AIDS campaigns. Of course with not much of a stage to fill, sparse pieces of scenery – a derelict bus stop, a rusty bench, a wheelie bin – bring all the atmosphere we need. The policemen and their new recruit Don José, in unflattering hi-vi security vests, are lazily flicking through some soft porn magazines. Sex, power and suppressed desires are the themes of this opera, undercurrent in every line of the libretto. Roberto Abate brings a lovely innocence to the country boy Don José, who is technically a bore and a mummy’s boy, the puppy love between him and his prim fiancée Micaëla devoid of any sexual tension.

In tumbles life – and chaos – in the shape of the two cigarette girls Frasquita and Mercédés (Sofia Troncoso and Ailsa Mainwaring) and their hysteric gossiping about the shenanigans of La Carmencita, who already sounds notorious before we even meet her. In this production, the cigarette girls and Carmen, the ultimate gypsy woman, are Travellers – a term that carries all the social undertones that Bizet intended. The concept works a charm. Visually because they look hilarious and, well, different, in their chav outfits and their garish make up, constantly chewing gum. And it works on a dramaturgical level, as Carmen is the first and most well-known big proletarian opera, set in a working class milieu. Escamillo, the celebrated torero (Samual Pantcheff, occasionally struggling with timing) becomes a popular boxer, a concept which works wonderfully, showing the working men’s obsession and idolising of sportsmen, while for the girls and Carmen, he is first and foremost a source of money (they quickly raid his pockets) and then perhaps, power through popularity.

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Caroline Carragher is a Carmen of dreams. While her costume plays with the clichés of a Spanish dancer – red and black, a ruffled skirt and tumbling curls – there is little folklore to her Carmen but a real sense of danger right from the beginning. This is a dangerous woman, a selfish fighter, a calculating flirt. Somewhere between “Like a Virgin”-Madonna and Patsy from Ab Fab, she pops her gum in boredom, absentmindedly rubs her little coke nose and keeps all her aces close to her leather biker jacket. The blasé way she answers all the police questions with an obnoxious bratty “tra-la-la-la” has quite a bit of Catherine Tate’s “Am I bovvered”-comedy routine. Caroline Carragher’s powerful voice breaking through all this nonchalant attitude gives wonderful contrasts to Carmen’s volatile personality. I loved how, at Don José’s passionate and earnest declaration of love, her heart almost visibly breaks but she doesn’t know what to do with true and trustworthy emotions. I loved how, with her lifestyle being always close to danger, the idea of looming death is so realistic, and superstitious beliefs so deeply anchored in gypsy culture, that Carmen almost goes looking for death to fulfil the prophecy.

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Meanwhile Don José blindly tumbles through his descent in life, seamlessly going from man-child to murderer, from good little soldier boy to deserter and thief, all in chase of a woman who walks over people for self-gratification, who works her charms always with an end-goal in mind. This Carmen, I thought, though a great seductress, doesn’t revel in the attention of men but since attention habitually comes her way she might as well use it to her advantage. And since society already thinks the worst of gypsies, calls them thieves and liars, they might as well give them what they want. How many times the phrase “prends garde” comes up in the libretto! Everyone is constantly wary of everyone else, arms at the ready, be that the quick fists of the boxer, a ready pocket knife or the little razor blade hidden in Carmen’s bra, that she has no intention of turning on herself but simultaneously wouldn’t hesitate to use if it gives her an advantage. She is so detached from ever meaning anything she says or does. How many times Carmen sings of l’amour without ever describing actual love. It is still such a powerful character study and, with the right nuances, Carmen can still wrap an audience around her little finger and take us all down with her.

Well done, Ormond Opera! Olé !

Suzanne Frost
December 2017

Photography by Michael John White

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From → Opera, Reviews

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