Carmen – King’s Head Theatre, London

Librettists: Mary Franklin, Ashley Pearson

Director: Mary Franklin

Musical Director: Juliane Gallant

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

All credit must go, once again, to the King’s Head for its mission to open opera up to those who see it as something for someone else. This version of Carmen from co-librettists Mary Franklin, Ashley Pearson takes the story of the Spanish gypsy and brings it bang up to contemporary Britain. It feels very much in keeping with Bizet’s aim of reflecting a more everyday life, rather than the grand operatic stories popular in his own time.

Carmen is no longer a vamp outside a tobacco factory, but a hospital cleaner who flirts with Jose, a nurse, on their cigarette break. She steals drugs, he catches her but takes the blame herself after a promise of faithful love. Trouble starts when he gets out on bail a few months later and Carmen’s attention is no longer just for him. Her choice of the flashy Arsenal striker Escamillio over bail-skipper Jose is unacceptable to the former nurse with tragic consequences for poor Carmen.

Stripped back to three cast members (the core love triangle) the story can become very flexible. This is a production that seeks to resonate with a modern audience with immigrant nurses, domestic violence, coffee shops, sneaking a look at a partner’s phone and more all thrown in to make the connection. The libretto is clear, with excellent enunciation from all three performers throughout – getting over a common problem of sung texts, even in English.

The set design from Anna Lewis is adventurous but unfortunately distracts from the performance. Dominated by a glowing red sign shouting “Love Will Set You Free” it not only pulls the eye, but calls to mind other extremely famous signs from history which told us that “work” instead of “love” will set you free. This historical reference is not mirrored at all in the work, so it’s a sledgehammer blow that hits in entirely the wrong place. The final scene is also performed behind a semi-opaque curtain – its red colouring distorts the view of Carmen in her red dress behind and really interrupts the final dramatic moments.

The strength of this production is, interestingly, in illustrating the potential truth of that very statement. “Love will set you free” is a line sung by Carmen – and this show eloquently makes the case for that being possible, showcasing the danger and claustrophobia of being in a relationship where jealousy and anger masquerade as love, ensnaring everyone in its strangling grip.

Musically, the three performers (Jane Monari as Carmen, Mike Bradley as Jose and Dan D’Souza as Escamillio) are excellent to listen to – crisp and powerful and very entertaining as they deliver the famous music. It’s difficult to believe this version of Carmen as a flirt – the energy doesn’t quite come off, but her characterisation as a victim of circumstance rather than an ill-fated adventuress is very engaging. They’re all wrapped up in a playful soundscape from David Eaton that interacts with the music, the singing and the story to create a fully engaging piece.

The visuals aside, it’s a great introduction to Carmen’s story and the capacity for opera to deal with contemporary themes. It feels new, rather than re-written or adapted and shows the versatility of the artform.

Runs until 9 March 2019 | Image: Contributed

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