Soho Theatre, London
By Georges Bizet
In a new orchestration by Harry Blake
And a new English version and directed by Robin Norton-Hale
There is a simplistic charm to Carmen from Opera Up Close that see's Bizet's classic stripped down to a talented cast of nine and an orchestra reduced to the most elegant of quartets. One of the most popular works in the classical canon, Carmen makes for a great introduction for those just dipping a toe into the opera genre. With a musical score that alone could fill a Now That’s What I Call Classics compilation, the melodies are familiar and the story offers a parable that is, sadly, as timely today as at its 1875 premiere.
Set in Seville the plot tells of Carmen, a free-spirited and beautiful gypsy girl who turns the head of Don Jose, a locally garrisoned soldier. Jose, who has never known a woman's love, becomes smitten with Carmen, who in turn has seen her desires move away from the soldier, falling instead for the dashing matador Escamillio, Unable to control his jealousy, Jose brings the story to a violent, tragic conclusion.
Opera Up Close have split their company into two teams for the length of the run and on the night of this review, Flora McIntosh played Carmen whilst Anthony Flaum was the troubled young dragoon. They were both sensational in their sung roles, with McIntosh capturing Carmen's defiant spirit as well as delivering a deliciously luring Habanera (and to my non opera-savvy readers, if you think you don’t know that famous melody, just google it).
However, whilst McIntosh, who has more operatic talent in her little finger than this reviewer can even aspire to, offers a performance of technical genius, her Carmen is more MILF than irresistible provocateur and her required charm, that should be able to attract alpha-males like flies, doesn’t entirely convince.
Flaum is a perfectly cast delight. At first appropriately stilted and gauche, he evolves into smouldering jealousy. One can believe in his emotional, impressionable innocence and whilst Jose's behaviour abhors, Flaum offers a portrayal that explains his character's desperate flaws, without apologising for them.
Richard Immergluck is Escamillo, who with the opera's famous Toreador Song is gifted one of the most recognisable singing gigs ever. Again, notwithstanding sheer vocal excellence, Immergluck also doesn’t convince. From the outset, Escamillo requires a flamboyance in his appearance, marking him out as a testosterone infused stallion. As it is, Immergluck looks as if he has just stepped off a bus rather than out of the bullring and whilst towards the opera’s finale, where Carmen sports his chic bolero, defining her as the matador's lover, it is too little too late.
Amongst the supporting company, Louisa Tee as local girl Micaela turns in some exceptional aria work and it has to be said that the entire cast are performers of the highest calibre. It makes such a refreshing change to a reviewer more acclimatised to musical theatre, to attend a musical performance in which not only are the actors un-mic'd, but their vocal work is so powerful and precise that they are crystal clear, even at the back of the auditorium.
On a modest budget, with a set that is more suggestive than detailed and fabulously lit by Joshua Pharo, Robin Norton-Hale's imaginative direction works a treat, even if her new translation occasionally grates for there is often something awkward when the contemporary English idiom is juxtaposed onto classic melodies.
A final word to musical director Berrak Dyer and her three fellow musicians Alyson Frazier, Alison Holford and Rosemary Hinton. These women are simply the best and their tireless work, is unmissable!
Runs until 19th September
Runs until 19th September