MUSIC / Caught on the horns of a dilemma: Nick Kimberley on Regency Opera's open-air Carmen at Holland Park Theatre

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The Independent Culture
In the endless battle between reason and unreason, opera favours the latter. Singing it in the first place is quite unreasonable; and then there is opera's penchant for letting Fate take a hand: no amount of reason, righteousness or fine singing can save the doomed characters if Fate has picked them out. No opera better embodies this than Bizet's Carmen, and no character has greater faith in Fate than Carmen herself. Her wilfulness is born of despair: I'm doomed, so it doesn't matter what I do with my life.

In Henk Schut's production for Regency Opera, a figure whom I take to represent Fate appears, brandishing symbolic horns during the prelude, helping Escamillo dress for his climactic bullfight, and generally milling menacingly. He is Omar F Okai, who choreographed the production: flamenco-isms of course, but also moments of disturbing ensemble movement. If some of that movement is clumsily achieved, the intention is honourable: to generate stage tension to match the music.

That tension is immediately apparent as the orchestra runs through the crucial themes during the prelude: Carmen, Don Jose, Escamillo and Micaela stand forlorn, hemmed in by the pens that are virtually all there is of a set. Rehearsing movements that represent their part in the drama - Micaela reads a letter, Don Jose plays with his knife - they are like bulls trapped in a paddock, waiting for the matador ex machina to toy with them.

Schut's resourceful interventions go beyond the Spanishry of some touring productions. Sadly, his inventiveness is undercut by the decision to sing in French. It is not good enough to assume everyone knows Carmen. We need to hear what she sees in the cards, to know why Micaela follows Don Jose around.

Having abandoned detailed meaning by refusing an English translation, it makes sense to jettison most of the spoken dialogue. Regency's London shows are under the open-air canopy of Holland Park Theatre. Schut extends the already large stage by using the colonnades of Holland House, but this makes for a huge space, which dwarfs the production. Tighter stage pictures would emphasise the inexorability of Carmen's fate.

The singers are boosted by discreet amplification, ensuring that the open-air acoustic doesn't waft their voices away. The voices are mostly light but not insubstantial. Gordon Christie's Don Jose has the right confused decency, and Gerard Quinn displays the barely perceptible strut necessary for Escamillo. As Carmen, Jenny Miller bears a slight resemblance to Agnes Baltsa, and wears a leather bodice, like Madonna: not a bad balance of hauteur and sexy movements. The voice is properly tough, although it sometimes sounded as if the sound system gave it undue prominence.

Conductor Simon Gray's experience in musicals showed in his generally light touch with the surprisingly large orchestra. The delightful setting demands something less weighty: more airy in fact; but as Carmen sprints across the stage to impale herself on Don Jose's blade, there is no lack of impact.

Holland Park Theatre, W14 on 7, 10-14 Aug (Box office 071-602 7856).

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