I have to admit, the thought of seeing Bizet’s 1874 operatic masterpiece Carmen in the intimate space of the Soho Theatre did raise an eyebrow – specifically due to the vocal techniques operatic singing requires to carry the voice across much larger houses. However, I was pleasantly surprised, and indeed, very impressed that the voices on stage were uninhibited yet sensitive to their surroundings.
Significantly reduced from the traditional Grand Opera style, this version of Carmen by OperaUpClose (who raison d’etre seems to be producing high quality but smaller-sized operas) is excellent. Cut down to only eight performers and a small chamber orchestra of four, Carmen focuses as much as it can on streamlining the plot with focus on characterization and motive. This is largely effective. However, even with the cuts to the score to remove extraneous elements (such as the chorus of peasants, gypsies, etc.), there are still moments that feel awkward.
The opera’s brilliant and hugely famous Prelude, one of the “hit numbers” that have ensured Carmen has never left popular repertoire since it’s premiere, remains intact yet is oddly staged with a few cast waiting around looking bored whilst the tiny orchestra perform in what feels like a recital. Clearly this choice was made as it sets up the first sung number about them actually being bored, but it feels very awkward as an audience member nevertheless. Luckily, this only happens sporadically throughout the opera, including the gorgeous (yet strangely pacey) Entr’acte and the scene change into Act Four. The dramatic ending of the opera (which at the time of the premiere caused much upset) unfortunately fell limp and landed like a dead weight with the audience not sure if the performance had ended or not.
The lead casting (or in this case double and even triple casting) is top notch, although I can only speak for the cast at this particular performance. As Carmen, Lilly Papaioannou is a knockout. Her silky smooth mezzo oozes the sex and seduction required for the role, and her diction is crystal clear allowing every single word to be heard like a bell. True to tradition, her Habanera and Seguidilla are highlights, as is her acting which is gripping. The same goes for Michael Bracegirdle as her on/off lover, Don Jose. His strong tenor commands the stage every time he appears, and at times, shadows everyone else surrounding him.
The remainder of the cast are vocally very strong but not necessarily convincing. It’s a shame that “opera acting” snuck in occasionally which weakened the powerful verismo performances of others and the “in-your-face” nature of this production.
James Harrison as the “Toreador” Escamillo struts around but doesn’t seem to actually do anything or even convince us that he is the star Carmen is attracted to. Similarly with Marcin Gesla’s Zuniga (probably the only weak link in the lineup) who’s Polish accent unfortunately overpowers any possibility of being understood in this new English translation by director Robin Norton-Hale. Gesla’s slothenly movement, sloppy appearance and paunch detract from the idea that he is actually the Lieutenant in charge. Roisin Walsh’s Michaela is a doey-eyed delight (despite the ill-fitting dress) and she shines in her aria in Act Three.
Hannah Sawle (Frasquita), Camilla Bull (Mercedes), Philip Lee (Remendado) and Thomas Colwell (Dancairo) round off the supporting cast.
Credit must be given to the creative team. The musical direction by Berrack Dyer is excellent – tight ensemble singing and an equally tight orchestra of piano, flute, violin and cello (new orchestrations by Harry Blake). The set and lighting (by Christopher Hone and Joshua Pharo respectively) is simply outstanding. It’s clear that there has been a huge emphasis on production values here. The direction by Robin Norton-Hale is mostly convincing, apart from certain moments mentioned above.
For those who love opera, and in particular, alternative takes on opera, this is an excellent production with very high production values and some simply stunning singing and music making.
Reviewed by Richard Kindermann
Photo: Andreas Grieger
Carmen is playing at the Soho Theatre until 19 September 2015. Click here to book tickets