Saturday, September 30

Carmen – Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen, based on the novel by Prosper Mérimée, tells the story of an obsessive love affair between soldier Don José (Alik Kumar) and flirtatious factory worker Carmen (Justina Gringytė). The musical scenes are punctuated by spoken dialogue between Jose and a detective known as the Investigator (Carmen Pierracini) and begins with José confessing to the murder of Carmen. I liked Pieraccini’s strength and stillness, watching quietly as the story unfolds, examining evidence and providing a moral compass for the work.

In this production, the libretto has been translated into English by Christopher Cowell. Opera can be a particularly challenging genre for a translator, but Cowell’s version flows beautifully. I enjoyed hearing the opera in English, and felt more connected to the action on stage, experiencing a sense of immediacy and playfulness.  Well-timed supertitles were also displayed, adding an extra layer of clarity.

This production is set in Franco’s Spain, a century after the opera was written. The chorus of soldiers and cigarette girls, weighed down by life’s woes, contrast with Carmen’s confidence and sexual magnetism. Of course, all the women hate her, and all the men claim to be in love with her – although they really want to tame, confine, and own her. Carmen chooses José, who seems less afflicted by machismo than his peers – but there are some fairly clear red flags from the outset of their relationship.  In between his declarations of love, he accuses her of bewitching him, and infecting him like a poison, and he seems ashamed of his attraction to her. Kumar brings a nerdish charm to the role of José, which makes his violent abuse more shocking.

Photo: James Glossop

Since the opera is set in a cigarette factory, there is a lot of onstage smoking.  I am sure that the present-day performers were provided with safe stage cigarettes, but spare a thought for previous generations of performers, and the vocal challenges they must have been faced with after inhaling all that tar. The smoke does contribute to the sense of time and place.

José’s ex-girlfriend, the sweet, value-driven Micaëla, was portrayed by the wonderful Hye-Youn Lee. Lee’s performance of Micaëla’s aria was stunningly beautiful. Through this aria, the nervous country girl reveals her true character with an intensity and passion that thrilled everyone in the room.

As the Toreador, Escamillo, Philip Rhodes brings charisma and a full-bodied voice, and is an appealing love interest for Carmen. He also has some of the best costumes. The orchestra, conducted by Dane Lam, were magnificent throughout, bringing Bizet’s beautiful music to life and transporting us into the world of the opera.

The backdrop was an array of white panels which could be individual raised and lowered to provide a variety of settings – a police cell, a nightclub, a warehouse. The evidence of José’s crime is projected onto the walls – photographs, an engagement ring, a knife. Simple furniture completed the set.

In the final act, the crowd’s jubilation and innocence, led by the children’s chorus, belies the bloody spectacle of the bullfight that they have come to see. Gringytė convinces with her portrayal of Carmen’s defiance against the jealous José’s entitlement, decisively rejecting him although she knows that she will lose her life.

The beautiful music, and stunning vocal performances, were a real treat for the ears, and I enjoyed every moment of this production.

Reviewer: Wendy McEwan

Reviewed: 9th June 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.