Thursday, 6 August 2015


Every so often, I like to post something here that’s a little bit different. So, after weeks of posts about wars in India and wars in France, let’s take some time off and go to the opera.

Last night OperaUpClose opened Carmen at Soho Theatre. Like so many shows nowadays, Carmen is opening with a run of "previews". I'm happy to judge the show on its opening preview, though, because it seemed a complete and polished performance. There was one point where an impressively pitched note from Flora McIntosh blew the filter out of one of the lamps, convincing me that she could easily break glasses if she wanted to, but otherwise I suspect that the main difference between seeing the show now and seeing it next week is that now is substantially cheaper.

I will admit straight away to being an OperaUpClose fan. Regular operatic productions put so much effort into using music and spectacle to make an immediate emotional impact and then the effect is almost completely destroyed by the distancing that comes from the proscenium arch, the orchestra pit and the social mores of the opera house. With OperaUpClose a tiny orchestra (here just a quartet whose magnificent efforts effectively translate Bizet’s score) sits to the side of the stage and performances are generally in fringe venues with no proscenium arch at all. The result is that you are both physically and emotionally closer to the singers. The productions also emphasise acting as well as singing and, despite the artificiality of opera as an art form, it is surprisingly easy to find yourself totally involved with the characters. There's no doubt, too, that the experience of watching something on bench seats in the Soho Theatre (or over a pub, which is where I first saw them) at £15 is inevitably different from the experience of a visit to the Royal Opera House. In the Soho Theatre, people have come to see the opera, rather than just for an evening out, and the production has to deliver without any help from the less than sumptuous surroundings.

Deliver it does. Robin Norton-Hale has attacked the libretto to come up with a harsher, earthier approach than most Carmens. The programme notes assure us that “this is not a love story”. No: it is a story of lust and obsession; power and control. The story, as with all OperaUpClose productions, is important. Not only do the singers act well, but they sing clearly. The opera is in English and almost every word is beautifully enunciated, making it easy to follow the action, even without the libretto. As an aside, it's worth mentioning that, containing the full libretto, the program is worth every penny of the £5 it is sold for.

Carmen is not presented as a young, conventionally pretty woman. Instead Flora McIntosh plays her as a woman who has been round the block a few times and enjoyed the ride. She brings a disturbing lithe sexuality to the role, easily entrancing a naïve José (Anthony Flaum). José’s descent from upright soldier, to young lover, to obsessive killer is convincingly played. Louisa Tee has the thankless task of making Michaëla into the girl any man would want to run from, her appallingly Pollyanna-ish approach to life easing José’s slip from the path of good intentions.

I'm never convinced by the toreador in Carmen. I always feel that Bizet felt that if he was writing a Spanish opera, it had to have a bullfighter in it. Richard Immergluck sings Escamillo’s part well, but still comes over as a contrived character. The clash between him and José as they fight over Carmen is convincing, but Escamillo is a bit-part, incidental to José’s obsession and Carmen’s fight to control her own life and destiny. In a way, this production makes him much less significant than the other singers in this cast of nine. The others, Carmen’s adopted family, are a tight unit, convincing as they drink, brawl, flirt and bicker. Escamillo is the outsider, the man whose presence finally brings the tension between Carmen and José to a head.

We all know the plot. It’s going to end in tears. Even so, it comes as a shock, the violence not at all stylised. Carmen’s end and José’s final descent into hell make a huge emotional impact.

I didn't mention the singing much, did I? That’s because the performers use the music in the service of the plot, rather than using the plot as a framework to show off their singing. For me, that’s the way it should be: the goal of opera is to highlight your emotions, not to showcase the fat lady’s technique. (Yes, Mozart fans, there are exceptions.) With the very best opera, the music is so good that you don’t even notice it. On this basis, OperaUpClose have produced a very good opera indeed.

1 comment:

  1. I saw it yesterday. A great show. I have loved every one of OperaUpClose's shows but for me this was the best yet.

    I'll see it again soon.