ESO’s Carmen is a strong, compelling piece of theatre.
The gothic arches and high ceilings of the Assembly Roxy establish the dramatic ambiance from the outset. This converted church is ESO’s biggest venue to date, matched by its biggest orchestra and first-ever full production team. These new additions reward Carmen with Laura Loszak’s striking costumes, an impressive orchestra lead by Olivia Morton and Sarah Brown’s well-designed set, featuring stone arches that cleverly match the real ones of the Roxy’s interior.
Carmen’s true highlight, though, are the performances. As our eponymous anti-heroine, Heriot-Watt’s Anna Keenan is entrancing and charismatic. She deftly embodies the different facets to Bizet’s complicated protagonist – both the manipulating, mischievous temptress and the maltreated victim of a spurned lover, and is eminently watchable throughout.
Carmen’s chosen suitor is the unsuspecting Don José, whose downfall from soldier to smuggler to murderer is skilfully depicted by Royal Conservatoire student Robert Forrest. From the outset the two have a palatable sexual tension and Forrest is believable as the tormented lover, driven to despair by Carmen’s preference for Escamillo (Jonathan Kennedy). Praise must also go to Monica Toll, who plays Don Jose’s childhood sweetheart Micaëla and wows with every note.
The strong chorus do much to establish the atmosphere of the piece, particularly in the famous Here They Come! (or ‘Les voici, voici la quadrille’ in the original French) which takes on a Les Miserables-esque vibe when a Spanish flag emerges, waving from amongst the crowd. The only downside of such a large cast is that the Assembly’s small stage becomes prone to over-crowding. Similarly, the consistent movement of the chorus throughout the production can distract from the main action.
Moving Carmen forward one hundred years to a 1930s Spanish Civil War setting has been done before (most notably by Richard Eyre for the Metropolitan Opera in 2010) but it remains a clever choice. The resulting sense of violence and oppression is well utilised by ESO’s production, providing added pathos to opera’s themes of liberty and choice. Director Brock Roberts makes Franco a character in his own right: a portrait of him remains stage left throughout the production. When Carmen sings ‘I will defend my right to choose’, the audience is very aware of the lack of choices available to the Spaniards of this era.
ESO’s Carmen is a strong, compelling piece of theatre. The production’s sense of professionalism, its playful reinterpretation and strong performances make this a worthy adaptation of Bizet’s classic, bound to simultaneously delight those familiar with the score and win over scores more to the charms of Carmen.