Carmen – Arcola Theatre, London

Reviewer: Chris Lilly

Composer: Leo Geyer (after George Bizet)

Libretto: Joanna Turner (after Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy)

Director: Joanna Turner

Four musicians, an orchestra consisting of violin, accordion, and bassoon, and all the songs: Carmen done and dusted in fifty minutes.

Baseless Fabric Theatre have brought a cut-down, no-frills opera to the Arcola as part of the Grimeborn Festival. They regularly sing in public spaces and with promenade performances, so Studio One at the Arcola is quite luxurious, but they bring a clear, accessible style to their production that owes something to street theatre. The set is two boxes and a bench. The cast is immediate, aware of the audience, resolutely not solemn, and it serves this version of Carmen exceptionally well.

Carmen (Felicity Buckland) has just finished her shift as a check-out girl. She spots the new security guard Don Jose (Jonathan Cooke) and sparkles in his direction, making him forget his long-suffering girlfriend Micaela (Claire Wild). All is going swimmingly until celebrity selfie-seller, influencer, Tik Tokker, Escamillo (Nick Morris) smarms his way into Carmen’s heart. Then it all goes pear-shaped in a very recognisably Mare-Street-at-two-am kind of way.

The three-piece orchestra has a pleasantly wheezy sound that evokes cigarette factories. Louisa Till on violin, Ilona Suomalainen on accordion, and, leading on bassoon, Leo Geyer play the tunes with charm and economy, and never overwhelm the singers. The adaptation cuts out most of the linking material and just offers banging tune after banging tune with the briefest of narrative interludes. Georges Bizet did not short-change his audience, Carmen is full of great songs, and they get immaculate treatment from the four singers.

They also remind the audience what an awesome and beautiful noise the operatic voice can produce, particularly when the singer is within arms-reach of the front row. Claire Wild in particular gives voice to despair and abandonment with a soaring soprano voice that is simply astonishing, but all the singers give full value to Bizet’s lovely, familiar tunes.

The director Joanna Turner has written lyrics in English that make the story immediate and funny. Everything in the show makes for richly enjoyable and quick entertainment; it showcases Bizet’s opera honourably, and makes the medium of opera accessible and unscary. That’s the intention of Mehmet Ergen’s Grimeborn Festival, and the mission statement of Baseless Fabric Theatre whose production this is. They achieve that magnificently. Anyone coming to this Carmen as an introduction to opera would almost certainly leave with a head full of songs and a heart lifted by beautiful sounds.

Runs until 13 August 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Sonorous, song-filled, snappy

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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