Sunday, 22 April 2012

Carmen @ The Kings Head Theatre

The sultry siren; the sexy senorita.  Carmen is an iconic figure in opera.  Yet with this production, The Kings Head are changing the face of Bizet's leading woman.  It's a daring choice, one that nearly comes off.

This really isn't the Carmen you know and love.  Nineteenth century Spain is switched to a modern day brothel with a libretto that is drastically chopped.  Straight away we're thrown into the drama as the pub itself erupts into the habanera before the cast even hit the stage.  It's a visceral experience, the singers perched along the bar within touching distance, which suits the sexually charged atmosphere of the opera.

Yet by beginning the opera at this point, much of the exposition is lost.  The major impact of this is on the relationship between Don Jose and Carmen, which occurs too suddenly and with little explanation, despite some chemistry between the actors.  Indeed, the whole narrative whips by in under ninety minutes - so fast-paced that it's difficult to keep up with.  And musically, this is more 'Carmen: The Greatest Hits', though with a cast of just seven they cope well with the vocal demands.  The grandeur of the orchestra is reduced to just piano (Elspeth Wilkes) and guitar (Rosie Hopkins), but the latter at least adds a Spanish flavour reminiscent of the opera's origins.  The modern libretto cleverly updates the narrative, but feels a little too streamlined and borders on melodrama.

Where the tempestuous relationship between the protagonists should be at the core of the opera, with this production it shifts to its modern concept.  The set is suitably grimy and jam-packed with details.  Rodula Gaitanou's direction, meanwhile, had some ingenuous touches, like the gypsy song sung through a microphone with lights and wind machine.  The cast sang excellently, Fleur Bray (Frasquita) and Olivia Barry (Mercedes) especially providing comedy to counteract the high drama, although Simon Meadows role as Escamillo was greatly diminished.  Andrew Bain easily rose to the vocal demands of Don Jose, but it was Flora McIntosh's Carmen who truly shone with a husky undertone to her sexually charged, lyrical lines.

Despite the cuts and short length, this was a focused production and a modern take on a classic.  It may not be for opera purists, but this Carmen is certainly inventive.


Watch: Carmen runs until the 2nd May.