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Carmen at The Queen Elizabeth Hall – Southbank Centre

I recall attending a performance of Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall some years ago. The producers were kind enough to include a synopsis in the programme: not that I needed it, as the show wasn’t exactly difficult to follow. This production, an adaptation of the 1875 opera by Georges Bizet (1838-1875), would have benefited from having a synopsis too – having suspended disbelief before entering the Southbank Centre, it was a bit surprising to find myself relying on previous knowledge of Carmen to get my head around what was happening.

CARMEN production photo by Amanda Fordyce
CARMEN production photo by Amanda Fordyce.

Even then, not everything was entirely clear, partly thanks to a relatively minimalist set (a plain couch was, by far, the largest object on stage), and partly thanks to the introduction of a film studio subplot. A cameraman (Eryck Brahmania, who also plays a cleaner and a fan – that is, a fan of Carmen, rather than a personified airflow device) is at one point ‘filming’ from the front of the stalls but is otherwise more or less unobtrusive. The film’s director (Isaac Hernández) gesticulates widely in movements that would, I think, be interpreted by most people in the audience to indicate colourful language in his frustrations with things apparently going wrong, or at least not happening in the precise manner in which he would prefer.

In the film studio scenes and sequences, Natalia Osipova, in the title role, is a dancer playing a dancer: this Carmen doesn’t seem to do much else except dance either on or off-stage. Whether she is technically a gypsy or not appears to be irrelevant, and the show gives the audience some insight with regards to what happens between the film’s characters when they aren’t shooting. For instance, Michaela (Hannah Ekholm) seems rather bored at one point, in a solo dance expressing frustration, presumably at not having much to do whilst a scene involving characters other than hers is being filmed.

Jason Kittelberger’s José portrays envy at the blossoming relationship between Carmen and Escamillo (also Hernández) with astonishing movements, deliberately jarring and contorted. This isn’t so much a love triangle as a love rectangle, the other party being Michaela, thus further cementing the central role Carmen has in this production: absolutely everything revolves around her. With both José and Escamillo, Osipova’s Carmen performs some exhilarating and passionate sequences. But this Carmen remained, ultimately, rather elusive – aside from being an excellent dancer who is the centre of attention for four other people, the lack of character development is, frankly, disappointing.

Dave Price is listed as the show’s composer, though there are instantly recognisable tunes lifted straight out of Bizet’s opera that were, at least to me, far more memorable than the newer infusions which were, admittedly, appropriate for the settings of various scenes. There was seldom a dull moment in this emotionally charged production. But it felt at times like a box-ticking exercise, with the full gamut of human emotions crowbarred into the narrative, in order for the cast to demonstrate their versatility, illustrating joy as passionately as bitterness. The discerning Southbank Centre audience surely deserves more than that.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Prosper Mérimée’s timeless story of love, passion and murder leaps offstage to merge with the real lives of the show’s dancers in this contemporary adaptation.

Carmen
Queen Elizabeth Hall
Performance & dance
https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/

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