A load of old bull

Edward Seckerson watches `Carmen' die an ignoble death at the Royal Albert Hall
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"Sex sells Carmen." Three words from a headline in Friday's Independent. Or did I dream it? Did I not read somewhere in the hot flush of pre-publicity that director Frank Dunlop, the man brave enough to put the Cliff into Heathcliffe, was poised to change the way we think about Bizet's femme fatale, that he and his designer Ralph Koltai, mindful of the primitivism of Goya's Spain, sought to put the obssession, the grit and grime, the death-wish back into this "tragic tale of love, passion and jealousy"? Well, good morning London, wake up to reality. You are more likely to find "love, passion and jealousy" on a slow Sunday in Frinton-on-sea, where shows like this one used to play split weeks. Dunlop and Koltai used to command respect. Used to. But there's the pity of it. This is a has-been Carmen, the kind of English provincial tat that gave D'Oyly Carte a bad name and could, if unchecked, put the cause of opera back half-a-century.

First things first. The space. Just think of the possibilities. The Royal Albert Hall awaits, the grandest of buildings, the best of prospects to return Carmen, wild and proud, to the heart of the action - literally - there to play out her self-sacrifice. Consummation in death. The ultimate corrida. So what does Raymond Gubbay and his creative team do? They put audience and orchestra in the arena and push the action back to the stage end of the auditorium. In the round? Hardly. So there's one golden opportunity for theatrical symbolism gone west. Dream on if you envisaged Escamillo and his entourage in a spectacular lap-of-honour before the final showdown. I believe I spotted a picador or two emerging from dark corners of the auditorium to make their way unceremoniously (and unlit) to the sun-baked platform (lots of orange in the lighting - Goya by arrangement with Athena).

Dunlop does go in for a little pre-match symbolism during the "fate" music, post-prelude. A group of raggedy kids enact their own bullfight. The bull is female, of course, a Carmen in embryo. But enough of art. Carmen - the musical - gets back into its stride with the cigarette factory spilling out fag-ash molls in corsets and frilly bloomers (not more symbolism, surely?). You can spot Carmen - the femme fatale - from her colourful plumage - "the rebellious bird" of her opening aria. Klara Uleman sings that as if good tuning were negotiable. Nerves or problems hearing the feed-back (we are miked, of course)? Either way, it's better that she sings than speaks.

This Carmen is in English, for all that we can hear of the sung text. The spoken text (in a translation that frankly you don't want to hear) is delivered in that stilted, pantomimic, can-you-hear-me-at-the-back manner (William Peel's Captain Zuniga is a collector's item of the genre) that makes one's heart sink the moment the music stops. Not that there's too much to sing about when it starts.

Tuning apart, the aforementioned Klara Uleman, despite her deep-throated timbre, fails to sing a sexy phrase (the Mercedes, Claire Powell, could, I fancy, outshine her in the role), Alan Woodrow - good value with his top notes - belts but cannot beguile, even where the object of his desire is his dear old mum.

Juliet Booth's Micaela has her moments, but the voice (lovely open quality) has yet to grow into the aria. Likewise Howard Quilla Croft's Escamillo, still very much a picador in matador's clothing. Barry Wordsworth and a spirited BBC Concert Orchestra get a move on, bless them. But this is a disgrace. Quite shockingly third-rate.

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