In this North London retelling of Bizet’s opera, our feisty titular heroine is caught between two men in a world of crime, sleaze, and skinny black jeans. Will she stick with Escamillo the violent criminal, or will she be rescued by floppy-haired bouncer Jose? OperaUpClose are a company on a mission – to bring the opera classics kicking and screaming to a new audience. Don’t expect fidelity to the libretto, score or even plot, but do expect an evening that somehow distils its subject matter into an hour and a half of seething sexuality.
The centre-piece of the production was Carmen herself, played in this instance by Christina Gill, although the cast alternates. Gill brought all the self-important feistiness of a certain type of modern woman, and managed to avoid the fake bawdiness of some Carmens. Instead she offered us a decidedly more real, if less picturesque, sexuality – she gave one of the few opera performances I’ve seen where I’ve thought, ‘hey, I know people like that.’ She thrilled us throughout with her sensual vocal tone, and charmed us with an occasional sultry darker edge.
The men in the cast, lanky Camden hipsters that they were, were always in danger of being swamped by the women’s self-actualised sexiness. Christopher Diffey as (Don) Jose used this to his own advantage, and broke our hearts in the section vaguely reminiscent of the ‘Flower Aria’ episode by revealing his tragic need to appear the manly protector. Escamillo, played by Nicolas Dwyer, made up for his less than imposing physicality by virtue of his rich vocal tone and liberal body hair. However, in a glaring costuming error, his orange jump-suit implied he’d escaped from Guantanamo Bay, only to wash up back in the borough of Islington.
The problem with bringing opera up close is that you become very aware of its mechanics – the bulging jugulars, the spit, the sheer volume of a tenor warbling in your face. Seated on the end of a row, I was also brought up close to the ‘romance’ of the piece. I haven’t been that close to two people snogging since… well. Gaitanou and Cooper’s vision was always for in-yer-face opera, and for better or worse they give us that on many levels, but they also furnish us with a sexy, fun and emotional show that I’d happily watch again.