It’s unmistakably Georges Bizet’s Carmen, as the overture and the piano introductions to the opera numbers keep reminding the audience. The anomaly of traditional productions being a French opera set in Spain but sung in Italian (or indeed in English) is commented on in this contemporary makeover, if only as a vehicle to keep in the Toreador Song, perhaps one of the most famous arias in opera. The result is rather comical, with Escamillo (Dan D’Souza) stumbling over words in a karaoke session (I did say this was a contemporary makeover). And what is usually a scene with cigarette factory girls is portrayed hilariously with just Jose (Mike Bradley on press night, the role being shared with Roger Paterson) and some simple but effective stage effects.
A lot of the supporting characters are kept in the show in one way or another, however fleetingly – the names will be known to those with some familiarity with the opera. Frasquita, for instance, is a newsreader on BBC radio, and it quickly becomes clear that this is an opera set in London, with a London audience in mind. References to West Ham and Arsenal football clubs are heard in voiceover commentaries – Escamillo plays for the latter, and thus the ‘capote de brega’, or the red cape of the toreador is instead the red shirt of the football player. Sacrilege for purists, perhaps, but it works: the football player these days has more or less the same sort of status and level of earnings as a top bullfighter would have done in Bizet’s day.
Much of the action is focused purely on Carmen (Jane Monari at this performance, the role being shared with Ellie Edmonds) and Jose (the ‘Don’ in Don Jose is deemed superfluous, for whatever reason, in the revised setting). Jose is still arrested and given a brief custodial sentence, and the contraband of the original version of the opera is still acquired – to say which of the on-stage characters got it really would be too much of a spoiler.
The words ‘Love Will Set You Free’ are emblazoned across the stage in capital letters, a theme to which this production periodically returns to. Backdrops are created by pulling a curtain across the rear of the stage (and in one case, a translucent curtain across the front) to reveal the setting for each act. The set changes may have been a little clunky, though these were covered over well with yet more of Bizet’s ever delightful score.
All three opera singers are impressive, with every line heard perfectly clearly (I happen to be one of those people that prefers opera sung in Italian with English surtitles rather than sung in English, because I find it’s easier to comprehend proceedings that way). There’s also some inventive use of mobile telephony and other forms of modern technology, seamlessly incorporated into the lyrics and music of the show, giving the feeling that this is all authentically set in twenty-first century Britain.
The show also has, if there is such a thing, the ‘right’ amount of profanity. Too much of it and one wonders if the librettists lack vocabulary. Here, its use is sparse enough to have a dramatic enough impact each time. Hearing Jose singing, “Carmen! F—k you!” in operatic tones was surprisingly amusing, for example. This fresh (re)interpretation of an old story was both thrilling and enjoyable, and considering none of the on-stage characters were particularly likeable, this production sizzles with the passion of this fiery love triangle.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Olivier Award-nominated producers of La Traviata, La bohème and Tosca present a vivid, compelling and devastatingly powerful take on Georges Bizet’s masterpiece. Carmen works minimum wage jobs on the frontline of Britain’s crumbling service industry. Jose falls madly in love with her after a brief fling. As his passion morphs into something uglier, and far more troubling, Carmen realises she might have made a fatal mistake… Sung in English, and blending stark emotional realism with some of the world’s most beloved music, this highly original new production examines toxic relationships in a society on the brink of collapse.
Ashley Pearson – Co-Librettist
Mary Franklin – Director & Co-Librettist
Juliane Gallant – Musical Director
King’s Head Theatre, 115, Upper Street, London, N1 1QN
Thursday 7 February – Saturday 9 March 2019