Scottish Opera / Carmen
Theatre Royal, Glasgow
If nothing else, director John Fulljames has a reputation for making you think. That’s exactly what he does from the very outset in a new production of Carmen for Scottish Opera that reexamines Bizet’s popular opera, not from the standpoint of its historical performance tradition, but by digging into its psychological origins – Prosper Mérimée’s original novel – and shifting the emphasis to the crime and its murdering perpetrator.
As such, it is reasonably justified. We see before us a classic television crime drama. On one level there’s the running interrogation of Don José by a leech-like “investigator”, spoken with cold and menacing persistence by Scots actor Carmen Pieraccini. On another is the opera we are more familiar with – the dangerously taunting Carmen playing a passionately jealous soldier against a pompously self-loving bullfighter – positioned now as the back story.
Just to add further intrigue, it’s all updated to a turbulent 1970s post-Franco Spain, when women like Carmen sensed the opportunity and felt the urge to exercise greater freedoms.
If that all sounds complex, it is and it isn’t. The real challenge is to shake off preconceptions of traditional Carmen presentations, where spectacle overrides evil, and consider the reality of the heroine’s murder and the hideous factors that precipitate it. Fulljames utilises a tart English translation by Christopher Cowell, and tends to subdue – with darkened visuals and digital projections from his design team – much of the traditional gaiety. His solution throws a lot at us, sometimes conflictingly so.
The cast is clearly on side. The first glimpse of Alok Kumar’s José coincides with the opening of the Prelude, seemingly at the point of confession under Pieraccini’s icy questioning. Throughout the opera he is a towering presence, troubled but insistent, rising to raging vocal heights as the tragic denouement approaches. His challenger in love, Escamillo, is not so convincing, a palpable weakness in Phillip Rhodes’ lower register robbing this toreador of an otherwise colourful and doughty conviction.
As Carmen, Justina Gringyté’s lithe physicality cuts a ballsy protagonist, with just enough softness to entertain empathy, and plenty snarls from her rich mezzo soprano voice to put up a necessary front. It’s not a wholly consistent vocal performance from the Lithuanian, and her English pronunciation occasionally misfires.
There’s a fine performance from Hye-Youn Lee as Micaëla, the childhood sweetheart from José’s homeland who attempts to save him, her big Act 3 aria surely the most moving moment of the show. Carmen’s friends (Mercédès and Frasquita) and the criminals (Dancaïre and Remendado) are a proficient grouping sung by Scottish Opera Emerging Artists Lea Shaw, Zoe Drummond, Colin Murray and Osian Wyn Bowen. Neat performances, too, by Dan Shelvey (Moralès) and Thomas D Hopkinson (Zuniga) complete the team.
What of the chorus, though? There’s a sense at times that their presence in this particular production is a minor inconvenience. They sing pleasingly well, and move with businesslike efficiency, but like the design concept their significance seems correspondingly muted. Except for the bullfight, where some resounding merriment lifts the spirits.
The ultimate, and most consistent, champions of this Carmen are the Scottish Opera Orchestra, whose performance on opening night under Australian conductor Dane Lam was exemplary, capturing Bizet’s red hot vibrancy, electrifying energy and melting expressiveness to the absolute full, proving that the beating heart of any opera emanates from the notes on the page.
Carmen runs in Glasgow until 20 May, with further performances in Inverness (23-27 May), Aberdeen (1-3 June) & Edinburgh (9-17 June). Full information at http://www.scottishopera.org.uk
(Image: James Glossop)