Last Updated on 11th August 2022
Tim Hochstrasser reviews Carmen presented at Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre.
9 August, 2022
One of the most refreshing aspects of the Grimeborn Festival approach is a willingness to give the most familiar operas a complete makeover. These great masterpieces are resilient enough to take it and what emerges allows old hands to look at the material in a fresh light, and, even more importantly, offers a wholly accessible way in for potential operagoers of the future.
This time it is the turn of Carmen where we swap the sultry streets of Seville for a run-of-the mill supermarket where Carmen is a bored check-out girl, Jose a security guard, and Escamillo a self-preening TikTok influencer. Micaela too is transposed into the social media age as one of his avid followers. The action and score are abridged down to an hour and the accompaniment takes the form of an accordion, bassoon and violin, a combo that looks unsatisfactory on paper but in fact subbed very well for orchestral forces. The text is re-written in witty contemporary English, though surtitles would still have helped in places. A scattering of props suggests locations in a basic way.
What matters here is that the emotional polarities of the action are carried over faithfully from the original to this updated version. Director Joanna Turner fully explores the feminism and toxic masculinity and generalised psychological manipulation on all sides that is very much there in Bizet’s original. Jonathan Cooke vividly projects the insecurity and jealousy of Jose. Felicity Buckland admirably represents Carmen’s independence and eye for the main chance. Nicholas Morris is more in love with his phone than with anyone or anything else – but that is entirely in sync with the narcissism of the original bullfighter. Claire Wild is a much feistier Micaela than usual, and it is another plus of the production that the Victorian fake modesty of the original is stripped away. This makes for a better-balanced engagement within the central quartet of characters. My one real reservation, and one that may resolve itself as the performances progress, is that some of the singing was simply too loud for the relatively confined space of Studio 1 at the Arcola. Less is quite often more here.
All the familiar tunes are here and sometimes in more effective arrangements for all the singers together or groups of them. I did not feel that I missed any particular numbers except for the social swirl of the crowd chez Lillas Pastia. The text is wordy, but the fitting of the words to the notes mostly works deftly without creating special problems for the singers. The original orchestral interludes are cleverly rearranged to provide cover for scene changes, though I feel a little more could have been found for the characters to do other than pace around.
The great strength of the production overall is the confident ensemble established between all the performers. Leo Geyer, on bassoon, provided a few leads to singers and players, but otherwise there was no need for a conductor to marshal the forces. Baseless Fabric Theatre are a tight weave indeed!