La Tragédie de Carmen is Peter Brook’s 1981 take on Bizet’s opera, with Marius Constant having worked from the original score and Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière having developed the libretto. It cuts the chorus, much of the length and all of the dialogue. With it therefore including just a handful of principals, Brook’s aim was to strip the work of the clichés that had built up around it to ‘restore’ it to being a starkly emotional, and highly personal, tale of love, desire and jealousy.
His version was first performed at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, and that setting may not have felt so different to Wilton’s Music Hall, where Gerard Jones’ new production for the Royal Opera, which features four Jette Parker Young Artists, appears. Jones, however, seems to have jumped particularly on the idea of presenting the piece almost as a cabaret, with one ‘number’ following another. One can certainly see the logic in making each aria feel like something akin to a cabaret act, given that it is being staged in the world’s oldest surviving Grand Music Hall. Foil string curtains hang all around as might be found in a club, and the orchestra (the Southbank Sinfonia on good form) stands on the stage with conductor James Hendry at the back of it facing the front. This enhances the sense of theatricality, and enables us to see Hendry’s extremely expressive face as he conducts.
Unfortunately, in absolute and not simply relative terms, the production values fall well below those to be found in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s current presentation of The Consul. This does not mean that Royal Opera productions should always be high-tech, and in this setting one could argue that it is the immediacy of the action that matters, which almost invites a certain ‘rough and ready’ approach. Nevertheless, this staging could have been realised by any of London’s smaller opera companies that typically perform in pub theatres, and the direction, which frequently results in little more than some lame jiving to arias, does not achieve all that it should.
It is possible to appreciate what this reduced version of Carmen can accomplish, and how it is planned for a few silent glances between arias to highlight the themes and sub-texts, and further the story in the absence of dialogue. The plot follows the original reasonably closely, although a different slant is placed on the ending and other changes are made in line with paring everything down. For example, as there are only four singers and one further actor, the fight takes place between Carmen and Micaëla, rather than another factory worker, and is instigated by the latter growing angry as she watches Carmen sing ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’ to Don José.
In this production, however, the endeavours to present the opera almost as a cabaret prohibit the penetration of character, which does not help us to connect emotionally with the individuals. This in turn hinders our understanding of why they behave as they do, which means that those not already familiar with the opera might struggle to know what was happening at all. This would not be as much of a problem were the piece presented so strongly as a cabaret that we were whipped along with the excitement of each number. However, presenting ‘Les tringles des sistres tintaient’ with Carmen as the sole person on stage can only work if we are able to connect with her innermost feelings, because in terms of creating a spectacle it will never be sufficient. There does seem to be some effort to make the audience the equivalent to the crowd that normally surrounds her, as Carmen waves to people, but it simply feels inadequate.
The principals’ performances, on the other hand, are excellent. Gyula Nagy reveals an immensely strong and powerful baritone, and really goes to town in ‘Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre’, strutting even more than most Escamillos on the grounds that in this context he is positively putting on a performance. No matter how one views the approach taken by the production, he fulfils what is demanded by it very well. Thomas Atkins as Don José and Francesca Chiejina as Micaëla reveal tremendous voices. There is a slight tendency with both to assert them too boldly, which may be a consequence of the small venue being easy to fill, and the singers understandably enjoying hearing their own sounds coming back to them in it. Nevertheless, if attention to phrasing is not at a premium, this would be a greater problem if their voices did not sound as good as they do.
The performer who really delivers on all fronts, however, is Aigul Akhmetshina as Carmen. Her mezzo-soprano is intriguing, revealing sensitivity and a strong attention to detail, and she captures the right sense of allure with a subtle tilt of the head or flutter of the eyelids. It is the strength of the principals’ performances, and the musical credentials as a whole, that ensure that the evening is far from a dead loss. It is difficult, however, to deny that the production and its values leave something to be desired.