First performed in 1875, Bizet’s Carmen was far from an instant hit. It took until a revival eight years later for Parisian audiences to really be charmed by the piece, which is now an incredibly popular opera all around the world. Sung in French, it is based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. Pop-Up Opera have applied their own signature style to this production, cutting it down markedly to give it a running time of approximately 80 minutes straight through, keeping the key characters of Micaëla, Escamillo, Don José and, of course, Carmen herself.
Spain, 1939. The country is going through a bloody civil war, and a fascist dictatorship is set to emerge triumphant. Micaëla has come looking for her childhood friend, Don José, with a letter from his mother; he has been fighting for the Nationalist army, but she now has hopes of starting a relationship with him (a sentiment endorsed and encouraged by his mother). They visit a cabaret bar, where performer Carmen catches Don José’s eye – when Micaëla is unable to convince José to leave, the two women end up in a scuffle over him, ultimately seeing Carmen escorted to jail. She convinces José to free her by seducing him further, but when the fighting begins again he doesn’t hesitate to return, leaving Carmen angry – they part badly. When he spots her with her new love, the officer Escamillo, his jealousy gets the better of him and they fight over her – after this, Carmen can only see this ending one way…
With this production, Pop-Up Opera continue to make opera more accessible to a wider range of people. Having only previously seen a comedic opera from this company (2017’s Hansel and Gretel) I was curious to see the approach to their captions, as they were rather quirky & whimsical for that particular show. For a drama such as this, the surtitles are a lot more ‘straight’, and actually do a far better job than large-scale opera productions that I’ve seen; rather than literally translating every single line all the time, often the caption succinctly paraphrases what is said, and doesn’t repeat the captions with the lines. This complements the onstage action, rather than diverting your attention from it – you will find yourself picking up the odd line here and there, whilst also keeping a close eye on what’s happening onstage.
The screen is also used to project some black and white film footage of the conflict, which adds a bit of context and drama, as well as making up for a deficit of characters (at least visually). If this could consistently be timed to fill the brief intervals where the stage is empty and there’s no singing, that would be ideal – as the production relies on piano accompaniment (played beautifully by Berrak Dyer) these pauses in the action can’t be filled by an ensemble or the variety of an orchestra.
The length of the show is another great way to convince people to give opera a go, as are the intimate and varied venues it is performed at – press night was held at Peckham’s Asylum Chapel and the tour visits all sorts of other venues, such as the Assembly Rooms at Bath, Beaulieu Abbey, and Grittleton Village Hall. This, along with affordable ticket prices, makes it perhaps a more enticing prospect for a wider range of people – a great way to introduce someone to the art form.
The cast of four have voices that are as incredible as you would expect; clear and precise, yet still brimming with emotion, listening to these vocals is an absolute treat. Alice Privett (soprano) brings a combination of innocence & melancholy to Micaëla, and interacts beautifully with the shadow figure on the screen as she searches for Don José. James Corrigan (baritone) shows the damage warfare has done to Escamillo, finding great comfort with Carmen. Satriya Krisna (tenor) develops his Don José from loyal soldier to jealous threat, demonstrating aggression and murderous intent. As the eponymous tragic heroine, Chloe Latchmore (mezzo soprano) impresses with her portrayal of Carmen’s spirit, ability to manipulate men and yearning for true freedom – her resignation at the fate she is headed for is both moving and horrifying.
My verdict? A beautifully compact version of a well-known opera, backed by stunning historic surroundings – the vocals and performances are impressive.
La Tragédie de Carmen was at Asylum Chapel on 25 September 2018. The UK tour runs until 23 November 2018. Tickets are available online or from individual venues.