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La Tragedie de Carmen

Bizet arr. Marius Constant, Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière, after Merimee

Buxton International Festival and Norwich Theatre

Buxton Opera House

July 5,9,13,16, 2024: 1 hr 30 mins

Niamh O’Sullivan as Carmen at Buxton International Festival. cr Genevieve Girling
Niamh O’Sullivan as Carmen at Buxton International Festival. All pics: Genevieve Girling
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Buxton International Festival’s policy for its opera productions has long thrived on a clever selling point: go off the beaten track but not too far; offer a hook for the audience in the shape of a well-known composer’s lesser-known work, or a variant of a mainstream standard.

This is an example of the second. We all know Carmen: it’s one of the few classical operas whose tunes are so well known that you can even offer one of them as just accompaniment and expect listeners to fill in the melody in their heads (as Rodion Shchedrin does in his Carmen Suite).

Jean-Claude Carriere, Marius Constant and Peter Brook’s adaptation, from the 1980s, was sometimes flagged as a “return to the original” – Carmen without the grandiosity of opera tradition. It’s not: it’s a miniaturised version with just four singers, 15 instrumentalists in the pit, and a running time of 90 minutes (without interval), with the story drastically telescoped to achieve it.

True, it eliminates Mercedes and Frasquita (Carmen’s associates), who weren’t in Prosper Merimee’s novella, and it brings in Carmen’s first husband, Garcia – albeit as a non-singing role – to be killed by Don Jose (the other protagonist of the story) as in the book. But it keeps Micaela (Jose’s hometown sweetheart, created for the opera scenario), and Escamillo is still the unforgettable toreador, not a mere picador as Merimee had him.

The reason is pretty obvious: they wanted to have all the best tunes, and so Carmen has to be a seductive and promiscuous gypsy (at least part of the time), Micaela gets her two lovely songs, and you can’t have a Toreador’s Song without a toreador.

The idea overall was, I suppose, Brechtian. It seems to have that quality of presenting the story as obvious play-acting, with rapidly-changing events and songs hung on as entertaining extras. Buxton’s director, Katharina Kastening, takes it that way, and adds her own gloss by looking at female stereotyping as the underlying theme. A very large placard displays “Femme Fatale” over the action for most of the time, and we’re invited to ask whether that concept can ever justify male violence.

Does it work? The weakest element is that when we get to the outside-the-bullring scene, the music of the original score is heard in recorded form, apparently from a ghetto-blaster, which is an idea that’s been used before. (Trouble is, it just doesn’t sound so good on 15 instruments). And Carmen as liberated woman, rather than evil siren, has been tried before, too (Opera North’s version in 2011, for instance).

The singers – Niamh O’Sullivan as Carmen, Elgan Llyr Thomas as Don Jose (he made a powerful impact as Prunier in Opera North’s La Rondine in 2023), Steffan Lloyd Owen as Escamillo, and Erin Rossington as Micaela – all do a sterling job with the music, as do the members of the Northern Chamber Orchestra, led by Winona Fifield and conducted by Iwan Davies. Cameron Cook is good (and comic) value as the silent Narrator, and the equally-silent Lillas Pastia, Zuniga and Garcia.

Bettina John’s design is a workable set of building blocks, opening up to reveal Pastia’s bar and a gaol when required. DM Wood’s lighting is almost uniformly dingy, with isolated pockets of brightness: it has to create atmosphere, as there’s little enough of that otherwise.

More info and tickets here


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