Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

CarMen

Music George Bizet, libretto Meilhac and Halévy, translated by Klein and Hersee and adapted by Robin Pietà
The New London Opera Players Secret Opera
Rosemary Branch Theatre

CarMen

There have been many excellent productions by intimate opera companies at this venue so the announcement of this adaptation of the Bizet favourite raised high expectations and certainly intrigued. The concept of an all-male version of this sex-centred tragedy is very different from the Union’s lively all male G & S on the other side of the river. Would it work?

It is the concept of Robin Pietà who is adapter, director and designer with a score arranged for piano by musical director Andrew Charity, a cast of just five performers and its length cut down to only 90 minutes.

Pietà keeps the setting Seville but makes it 1920 and offers this as his revised synopsis (you’ll notice quite a few changes from the original):

“Sexually confused and dominated by the strictly religious upbringing imposed by his widowed mother, farmworker José has come to Seville to get a glimpse of the young man he has idolised from afar, the burlesque dancer Carmen. A chance encounter throws them together for the night, but the very next day Carmen meet wealthy, powerful and sexually charged matador Escamillo.

"The surge of jealousy that José feels is aggravated when the pair take him to a notorious cruising site in a crass attempt to get him to accept his sexuality. His anger, resentment and violence burst forth when he is brought news that the most important person in his life, his mother, is dying.”

I don’t object to the thinned-down scenario but this isn’t what Pietà puts on stage, though since there are alternative casts in the programme for this production another night might be conceivably different.

As Pietà’s synopsis emphasises, Carmen is all about sex, its score is alive and exciting but, despite a production that simulates intercourse onstage, this is a long way from the passion and allure that is present in the music, even in this reduction.

The camp Carmen I saw gave a new meaning to opera queen, but it was a consistent performance, though his motives were somewhat ambiguous. As in Merimée’s novel, he’s his own man but, unless we are to see him as either prostitute or sadist, would he really have gone for this Don José or this Escamillo?

Another character at one point calls José an older man—is that why he gormlessly shuffles around bent over and in what look like carpet slippers? Escamillo, meanwhile, is no slim-hipped hot-blooded matador. In his slack-fitting suit of lights, he has none of the glamour that would make celebrity his attraction.

Despite the point of the production being its all (gay) maleness, the Michaela is actually sung by a woman but it is left to another man (allowed more personality than José’s competing lovers) to play any other characters rolled into one.

This isn’t a production for canary fanciers but the cast aren’t bad singers and perform with great concentration, though sometimes this puts them into a huddle looking down for a conductor in a non-existent pit. They do their best with the shrunk score, with choruses cut or necessary lines given to soloists, and those great familiar tunes still survive.

The trouble is, this production turns Carmen into no more than a camp tease and the performer is capable of much more. This casting required a more radical rethinking to make the relationships believable, to make Carmen’s choice of these partners logical, and an understanding that displaying bare flesh or going through the motions of intercourse doesn’t necessarily make things erotic whether the character of Carmen is male or female, straight or gay. There is an opportunity missed here to create a show that could say something meaningful.

Pocket opera at a price we all can afford is a very welcome development of recent years. One wishes this company well for the future, but they do need to take a more rigorous look at what they are putting on offer.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton