Saturday 27th February 2016
We’ve been fans of Operaupclose for a while, and we’ve always admired their style, taking classic operas to tiny venues. In fact, we were a bit nervous that the Pentland Theatre in North Finchley’s Arts Depot, at nearly 400 seats, might be a bit on the large side for this intimate style of performance. However, you can’t get much more ‘classic’ than the ever-popular Carmen, so this was a must-see for us.
A big factor in the previous successes of Operaupclose productions has been in finding a good concept, as in the casting of Madame Butterfly as a Thai Ladyboy, or the Jane Austen-esque setting for the Barber of Seville. The dilemma here is, how do you reinvent an opera based on a thinly plotted melodrama full of misogyny and crude racial stereotypes? In Robin Norton Hale’s version, the answer is to strip away the glamour and superficial trappings of the original. So, the colour and vivacity of Spain is replaced with (we are told) an urban and dust-filled desert in South America. The costumes are deliberately downbeat, and there is little sense of class or ethnicity. The broader milieu of society is not present, and that is not just because the cast is small – the chorus just has no clear identity, and there is no help from the set either. Knowing how skillfully this company has previously evoked whole cultures from the smallest of objects, this was surprising.
The problem with this approach is that it was difficult to understand the action without clear visual cues, but more importantly, the physical setting seemed like a vacuum draining the emotion out of the music instead of amplifying it. Carmen should be a feast for the senses – all the senses. This also hampers the characterisation of Carmen herself, whose flirting seems to be a joyless performance. This is one way of reading the story, but it is alienating. It doesn’t seem as though the audience is ever meant to be seduced by Carmen. Meanwhile Don Hose, the soldier whom she seduces and then tires of, is portrayed as a clown rather than just a naive young man, making it very difficult to see why Carmen is drawn to him in the first place, and making her behaviour seem manipulative and overtly cruel by removing the appearance of a romantic connection between them.
Which brings us to the question of whether you can put a modern reading on this piece without destroying its essence. Robin Norton Hale, who both directs and has written the English libretto, has a clear reading of the story, published on the Operaupclose blog. For her, a fatalistic approach, and the idea of a ‘crime of passion’ didn’t work. But for us, the framing of domestic abuse diminishes Carmen. It is interesting that Don Hose is said to kill her in a fit of jealous rage. Suggesting that Carmen had all the warning signs and chose to stay or was unable to escape, completely changes the story and makes us wonder, why not just tell a different story and tell it fully?
What strikes us about Carmen is that she has the sexual mores of a stereotypical male – she seduces men and leaves them when she gets bored, and she takes no responsibility for the vagaries of ‘love’ – it’s all in the ‘Habanera’ that introduces her. In a patriarchal society, that is crime enough, but she also makes the fatal mistake of ‘Hubris’, that key element of Greek tragedy where the hero (mostly but not always male) defies the gods with excessive self-confidence. She thinks she can control other people, and although of course she doesn’t deserve to die, as the heroine of a tragedy, why should she not suffer the same fate as a tragic hero would? Surely, to make her death the product of patriarchal power perversely undermines her by turning her into a victim instead of a flawed human being, especially when the scenario is so sketchily drawn and lacking in depth.
Perhaps one of our biggest frustrations was that, as we expect from Operaupclose, the quality of the music was so high. Harry Blake’s condensation of the orchestral score for a quartet of musicians is in itself a tour de force, and Flora McIntosh’s vocal dexterity and versatility as Carmen is striking. Ben Thapa as Don Hose has a rich and emotional vocal quality which belies the action, and as Escamillo the Toreador, James Harrison, dressed down in casual chic, still brings with him that charismatic aura of the bullfighter with a beautifully relaxed and warm vocal rendition of that most famous of songs. He alone seems to rise above this interpretation with a glimpse of romance and excitement.