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Carmen, Royal Albert Hall, London


Everyone loves Carmen, but no one ever quite brings it off because its delicate balance between public and private, large-scale action and intimate drama, is so tricky.

Francesca Zambello’s production at Covent Garden is such a merry riot of detail that the eye is drawn in every direction at once. Calixto Bieito’s version at the Coliseum has a searing denouement, but along the way it gets terribly bogged down in pseudo-philosophical sub-texts. Meanwhile David Freeman’s Royal Albert Hall production is periodically brought out for an airing, and the contrast this makes with the aforementioned shows could not be more stark.

Freeman and his designer David Roger trade on the hall’s huge central space by making a gently-ramped platform snake through the arena, and their use of this device during the overture works beautifully.

A platoon of soldiers marches silently on, then the stage gradually fills with figures: boys playing at bull-fighting, Gypsy girls working out a dance routine, a flower seller, couples decorously promenading in their Sunday best: a whole world is established through dashes of vivid colour.

The drama is energetically sprung between Don Jose (Noah Stewart), Zuniga (Benjamin Cahn), and Micaela (Elizabeth Atherton) before the factory girls come out led by Carmen (Rachael Lloyd), but it’s vitiated by a total disconnect between sound and vision. This is because, thanks to the non-directional amplification, one often can’t work out who is singing, and also because the lighting is not used to draw the eye where it needs to focus. And though the show is sung in English, the diction is very hit-and-miss: anyone new to the opera would need surtitles to know what’s going on.

On the plus side, Lloyd gives us a thoroughly convincing and well-sung Carmen, while Stewart – a young black tenor from Harlem with a radiantly open sound – is a graceful Don Jose: when he later makes an unamplified re-entry through the stalls – before merging once more with the general sonic soup – one realises his vocal potential. But the other solo roles are run-of-the-mill, and the show as a whole is woefully patchy.

There’s some nice spectacle, but it comes at the expense of the drama: one has no sense of any relationship between the protagonists, and it’s just one more little surprise when Jose whips a knife out of his pocket.