Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 19th January, 2016
Georges Bizet’s popular opera gets stripped down in this production by OperaUpClose, with only a quartet of musicians and a cast of nine. What we lose in sweeping orchestral arrangement and stirring chorus scenes, we gain in directness and intimacy. The material suits this kind of treatment very well. It’s a sordid little tale of women who work in a cigarette factory and the men who pursue them, soldiers, mainly, looking for ways to pass the time.
Among the women is Carmen. No shrinking violet, she is more than at ease in her sexuality and is out to have a good time, but on her terms. She’s a strong woman who might glass you as soon as look at you. Flora McIntosh is a feisty and seductive Carmen, exuding self-assuredness, while Anthony Flaum’s hot-headed Jose, captivated by her charms, is both stirring and dangerous. Along comes smoothie Escamillo (with his famous Toreador song) played by Richard Immergluck, igniting Jose’s jealousy, and the scene is set for violence and tragedy.
Director and English librettist Robin Norton-Hale keeps the lid on this simmering potboiler, bringing a naturalistic touch to the stage business and extempore action. Throwaway lines of dialogue supplement the recitatives, but the singers are allowed their head when the moment arises. The solos are sublime and so is the ensemble singing for that matter. Louisa Tee’s Micaela delivers an aria in the third act that blows you away.
The production may be small-scale in one sense but it is still big on talent and emotion. Led by Berrak Dyer on the piano, the quartet delivers Bizet’s luscious score, still richly textured in this arrangement. Famous tune follows famous tune – this is easy, accessible opera; OperaUpClose shine a new light on it by scaling the drama down to its essentials while losing none of the melodrama.