Classical: Bizet - and no bull

Nick Kimberley contrasts two operatic approaches to Carmen, a gypsy girl who has always given as good as she gets

One of the handful of operas that no company can afford to do without, Carmen is also a piece that presents a perpetual challenge to directors. We've had Steven Pimlott's vast arena production of the piece, first seen at Earl's Court in 1989 and subsequently toured around the world, defecating horses and all. We've had Peter Brook's trimmed-down version, La tragedie de Carmen, which stripped back narrative, character, decor and instrumentation to their bare minimum, creating a kind of ersatz urtext of Bizet's 1875 original. We've even had that recent travesty, Carmen on Ice, from the so-called (and strictly non-singing) Russian All- Stars.

Carmen the opera, like Carmen the character, is protean, and we are soon about to see two more of the infinite incarnations it and she can assume. In Cardiff, the French directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser are preparing a new Welsh National Opera production, to be sung in French (with subtitles) and to be staged in Cardiff's New Theatre, an intimate space like that of the Paris Opera-Comique where Carmen was first seen. Meanwhile, in London, Frank Dunlop is rehearsing two casts for a run of 10 performances, to be sung in English and to be given at the Royal Albert Hall, which - with a capacity of 4,000 - is at least three times larger than the theatre for which the opera was conceived.

The Royal Albert Hall performances are promoted by Raymond Gubbay, a man proud to stand outside what he views as the musical establishment. True, in 1991, he worked with the Royal Opera to take its production of Puccini's Turandot to Wembley Arena, but now he defiantly flies the flag of his (unsubsidised) independence. If certain of his recent statements to the press have suggested that he is waging a personal war with Covent Garden, in less combatitive moments he admits that he is looking for a different audience to fill the Albert Hall 10 times over. "There's no such thing as guaranteed box-office, and the break-even figure is higher than we would like. It always is. To get that number of people in, we have to go beyond the conventional opera audience. We're looking for people who go to West End shows, to a musical or a rock concert. Of course, Carmen is a great opera, or else I wouldn't be doing it, but I'm not an evangelist. I'm a producer of events that I think are going to be good events, and which will get a good public response."

Last year Gubbay mounted Puccini's La Boheme at the Royal Albert Hall, sung in the original Italian. For him, the decision to sing Carmen in English is the right one, given the opera's form, in which spoken dialogue links the musical passages: "We're doing it in English because it seems to make much more sense to do the dialogue in English. Surtitles work much better in Italian opera because of the way it's structured, with no dialogue, and if next year we go back to Italian opera, to Verdi or Puccini, it's very likely that we'll go back to the original language. There is no hard and fast rule."

Although the Royal Albert Hall is a lot larger than the Opera-Comique, Gubbay is confident that its size will be no barrier: "It's interesting that, if you walk out into the arena of the Albert Hall, none of the audience is very far away from you, whereas, in a conventional concert hall, people seem a long way back. Believe it or not, you can create an intimate atmosphere in the Albert Hall, and we're working within the scale that it offers, with a production that fits. We're not trying to ape the Earl's Court or Wembley type of productions, which produce their own problems and are hugely expensive."

"So no horses," quips Frank Dunlop. Dunlop has directed straight theatre, opera and musicals (including Heathcliff with Cliff Richard); for him, the English translation is an essential: "The text has to be understood, because it's such an extraordinary text. One thinks of Carmen as spectacular, which it is a lot of the time, but then for a lot of the time it's just two people listening to each other, making love to each other, screaming at each other, tearing each other apart. It's astonishing, and we have to be able to go very suddenly from a big space to just two people, making sure that 4,000 people get what's going on behind the characters' eyes. Carmen was the first piece of `music-theatre' - it's not what we usually think of as an opera. Bizet knew what he wanted, and the opera is such a unity, a unity which I can't envisage without understanding what the characters are saying all the time."

Over in Cardiff, Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser have other ideas, although they concede that asking singers to deliver spoken dialogue can present problems. As Leiser suggests, "The dialogue is part of the opera's identity, and you must do it, even though it's difficult and makes it harder to direct, especially when it's not in the language of the singers. But then, even with French singers, it's hard to make sure that the same energy carries through both the music and the dialogue. As for doing it in French, it feels right. The music is so connected to the words, and the singers are delighted to do it in French, even if it means more work. We're very much in favour of surtitles. It's like when you're in a hotel in a foreign country, and there's a fight outside the hotel window. It's very exciting, but it's even more interesting if you know what the fight is about."

That could equally be an argument for performing in English, but Leiser and Caurier insist that they're not fanatical about staging opera in the original language: after all, they point out, they dared to translate Shakespeare for the Opera de Lyon staging of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream with which they made their debut as a directing team in 1983. Having decided to perform in the original language, of course, they can help the singers (only one of whom is French) to develop a musical style that is genuinely French rather than, as Leiser puts it, "sous-Italien". At this point he breaks into song, delivering Don Jose's "La fleur que tu m'avais jetee", first in an Italianate manner, then in a French style: "The style of French opera is not the style of Italian opera, and the sense of articulation is not a long, singing legato. If you stay close to the language in the music, then the theatre can flow."

What kind of a woman, I ask, is Carmen? Leiser, the merest hint of exasperation in his voice, replies: "God, I hope I'll never be able to answer that question." Nevertheless, he goes on to provide an answer of sorts: "I don't think she's so special. The problem is that, where everyone accepts compromises over their freedom, Carmen doesn't. But, as for what kind of person she is, I don't know. And that's good. We shouldn't know until opening night. That's when we find out. If, in the middle of preparing a piece, you say, `We want her to be this kind of person,' you force the singer into a preconceived idea."

Caurier adds, "You have to start from the person who is singing the role."

But there is another starting-point: Prosper Merimee's novella, on which the libretto is based. One of the dangers facing any director is that of staging the work's literary source, rather than the work itself. As Caurier says, "It's not often in opera that it's so important where the piece comes from, but here it is. Merimee was feeding us." Leiser (the more talkative of the two) takes up the theme: "Merimee gives us the smell of the opera, so that we're not trapped by the tunes. We don't turn to Merimee for the novel's literal structure, just to make sure that we're not in a picture-postcard Seville. People think that Carmen is about sets and costumes, but it's not. We try to get rid of the anecdotes and the folklore and come back to simple reality, because it's just not true that Bizet's was a picture-postcard Spain. If the violence and the eroticism weren't there in Bizet, then we couldn't stage the opera."

As Noel Coward once wrote, "Carmen by Bizet/ is no more Spanish / than the Champs-Elysees." He had a point, but one of the things that makes the opera so intriguing is that sense of entering terra incognita, a land where life is rather more dangerous than on the Champs-Elysees. It may only be a Spain of the imagination, but that doesn't mean it's not real. As Leiser says, "Actually we come to see Carmen executed in exactly the way we come to see a bull executed in a corrida. I'm not saying it's a Nietzschean opera, or that people should come to the opera to be punished with a lecture, but it shouldn't be entertainment in the American sense, it should be a mirror where we look to learn about ourselves"n

Gubbay's `Carmen': 6-16 Feb, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212). WNO's `Carmen': from 15 Feb, Cardiff New Theatre (01222 878889), then touring from 11 March to Bristol, Birmingham, Southampton, Oxford, Liverpool and Swansea

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