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

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders