THE HOUSE lights are not dimmed, but suddenly extinguished, and the orchestra launches into the galloping prelude. Soon the black front drop, replacing the traditional heavy curtain, rises to reveal a towering set of circular balconies full of armed soldiers, lit melodramatically from above.
Is this Carmen set in Seville or Santiago? The long shadow of Pinochet seems to hang over the opening scenes of Phyllida Lloyd's new production. Certainly, this is a society in which the military are dominant, if not in power. When Micaela appears, an innocent tourist with a street map, it is not light-hearted banter that greets her. The soldiers are obscenely threatening.
Even the children are aggressive. They look like an incipient teenage gang.
Phyllida Lloyd has done to Carmen more or less what she did to La Boheme for Opera North a few years ago. She has brought seriousness and a sense of reality to pieces that are traditionally treated as soft-centred, feel-good outings. And, as with Boheme, the results are powerful and disturbing, if not always perfectly in tune with the work.
But Carmen is essentially a story of "low life", of violence, feuding, lawlessness and casual sex. As its first, disapproving audiences realised, it is squalid rather than glamorous. What we get at the opening of the final, brief act, for instance, is a parade of all the tacky tourist goods you'd expect to see outside a local bullfight - fans, capes, posters, soft drinks. And when Escamillo makes his first appearance in the cafe, it is as a cut-price Elvis, clad in leathers with shirt open to the waist. Mark Stone, though, needed more swagger and conceit in his voice, as well as his acting. He had the right presence, but was vocally rather colourless.
The other three principals were all more convincing. Susannah Glanville as Micaela was no pallid country flower, but a resourceful and dramatic character, as befits a woman who dares to confront not only the soldiers of Act One, but the equally menacing drug smugglers of Act Three.
As Jose, Antoni Garfield Henry looked and acted exactly right. You know, from the moment that Carmen picks out this nerdish corporal in glasses, to roars of laughter from all around, that he will be out of his depth, dazzled and finally obsessed by this self-possessed, sensual woman. His tenor is not ingratiating, or especially rich, but he gained in assurance as the evening went on and had great verbal clarity.
And Ruby Philogene as Carmen? She has the allure and the style, and turns in an acting performance which complements Henry's. And the voice is exactly right, again with plenty of words. But, as yet the vocal performance is too bland and uninflected, and she needs to project more into the auditorium. But this Carmen is set for a long run, and these individual performances will surely mature and develop.
In smaller roles, Richard Whitehouse (Morales), Katherine Henderson and Denise Mulholland (Mercedes and Frasquita) stood out, while both choruses, children and adults, were excellent.
Andras Ligeti conducted a performance whose dramatic intensity matched the production's. Carmen, with its superb characterisations and utterly convincing narrative, is treated in this production as one of the great operatic dramas - which it is.
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