Bizet’s opera Carmen holds a special place in my heart. Not only was it the first opera I saw, but Matthew Bourne’s danced version – The Car Man – was the first time I really understood how a story could be told so well only by movement. So, when I heard that the King’s Head were presenting a new version of the story, I leapt at the chance to go.
This new English version, with libretto by Mary Franklin – who also directs – and Ashley Pearson, brings Carmen solidly into the twenty-first century. The action starts here in the UK. where we meet Jose (Mike Bradley/Roger Paterson) a nurse fed up with his lot. He hates his life, consisting of a job he dislikes, a very sick mother being looked after by his wife, and his unrequited love for hospital cleaner Carmen (Ellie Edmonds/Jane Monart). Then one day fate, and Carmen’s naivety changes their relationship and enables Jose to both assist Carmen and get her into his debt. Months later, now working as a waitress in a Spanish karaoke bar, fate works its magic once more and brings Carmen into contact with pin-up boy of the footballing world Escamillo (Dan D’Souza), a charismatic young man who can score as easily off the pitch as he does on it. Love, fate and jealousy now combine to take these three people on the journey of their lives.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, this version of Carmen is really paired back to the bone with only three characters presenting the story. This was a bold move on the part of the Producers and it works very well. We get to really delve into Jose and Carmen’s relationship and see the people behind the character. For me, this meant a complete re-evaluation of both Carmen and Jose. Carmen has always been to me a schemer, prepared to use her body and her feminine wiles to get what she wanted and Jose was a poor romantic fool who fell for the temptress and found himself immersed in a world of crime and loose morals. In this version, I thought the complete opposite. Watching the performances and it felt to me that Jose – admirably played with some first-rate acting on top his singing by Mike Bradley – was by far the more manipulative of the two main characters. Whilst Carmen – admirably played by a wonderful Jane Monart – is much more the victim, trapped in a relationship where Jose uses guilt to control and own his prize. Escamillo’s role in this relationship is more nebulous. Does Carmen have feelings for him or does she see him as a way out of her life of zero hour contracts and minimum pay jobs? Personally, I think it is the former and that Carmen, while initially attracted to Escamillo’s glamour, does fall in love. But I’ll leave that there and you can make your own minds up.
The production itself is very impressive with all three actors really bringing their characters to life in fine style in the version I saw. There are two casts alternating the roles of Carmen and Jose. The music supplied by Juliane Gallant and David Eaton on keyboards is as familiar as always and the libretto has a surprising amount of comedy in it. The stage may be small but the sense of intimacy this provides really draws the audience into the relationships being played out in front of them. This is particularly true of the second half where Acts III and IV are really emotional as the story moves towards its conclusion. Anna Lewis’ set makes great use of some well-designed backdrops to convey a sense of place and this really effective in the final scene where the emotion of a football match is a constant in the background of the narrative unfolding in front of the audience.
Carmen has always been a great production for the virgin opera-goer to attend. The music is well known and the story is fairly simple. This version, sung in English brings an increased level of accessibility and relevance to the story and, at a running time of around two hours including interval is not going to be too much of a strain for the novice to take in.
Review by Terry Eastham
The Olivier Award-nominated producers of La Traviata, La bohème and Tosca present a vivid, compelling and devastatingly powerful take on Georges Bizet’s masterpiece. Carmen works minimum wage jobs on the frontline of Britain’s crumbling service industry. Jose falls madly in love with her after a brief fling. As his passion morphs into something uglier, and far more troubling, Carmen realises she might have made a fatal mistake… Sung in English, and blending stark emotional realism with some of the world’s most beloved music, this highly original new production examines toxic relationships in a society on the brink of collapse.
Ashley Pearson – Director & Co-Librettist
Mary Franklin – Director & Co-Librettist
Juliane Gallant – Musical Director
King’s Head Theatre, 115, Upper Street, London, N1 1QN
Thursday 7 February – Saturday 9 March 2019