Carmen and a tale of two cities

Carmen and a tale of two cities

by Peter Smaill
article from Saturday 19, December, 2015

THE TWO best known syllables in the operatic repertoire provided, in November 2015, a double opportunity to be immersed in that fabulous work of sun, ciggies, song and sex – the tragic tale of the enravishment of the simple corporal Don José by the flighty gypsy temptress Carmen.  For two worthy productions occurred almost simultaneously: in London, at Covent Garden; and at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre.

Now that the echoing trumpets of the love-rival toreador, Escamillo, have withdrawn in the memory to the inexhaustible store of Bizet’s melodies, what can be said about the contrasting performances?

Contrast they certainly did. At Covent Garden, even though the historic stage is almost exactly as big as that resulting from the 20-year old makeover of the former Edinburgh bingo hall (Empire Theatre), the production was intimate, visual, vigorous and visceral. In Edinburgh: the players rattled around an almost setless expanse, leaving the audience to imagine that the drop-curtain and wing panels, streaked with paint in sub-Jackson Pollock style, had something to say.

A pot of paint thrown in the face of the public! How different from yesteryear. For, in 1977, the swansong for the Festival director Peter Diamond had been a truly great performance in Edinburgh – showing we can achieve international standards where will and money coincide. Teresa Berganza, Placido Domingo; Ileana Cotrubas and Tom Krause; all under the baton of Claudio Abbado. But that was not all: the Faggioni production, in the intimate Kings Theatre, captured sultry Seville in tawdry Tollcross. Almost forty years on and the gauze curtain created a Goya-esque shimmer while the dancers of the Paco Peña dance group were reputedly almost in tears, seeing their gaudy frocks bespattered with paint so as to create the demi-monde atmosphere of a smoky, sultry Iberian powder-keg.

Dance – flamenco, habanero, pasodoble: the vigour comes from the rythmns and the physicality of the work. Thus it was in the Kings Theatre in 1977; and at Covent Garden in 2015.The taverna of Lillas Pastias, which celebrates liberty for the gypsy smugglers (and the hapless deserter, the prisoner-of-love Don José) erupted with an explosion of tabletop toe-tapping in London. In Edinburgh it felt as if the publican wanted to keep the noise level down as if the burgh licensing laws of forty years ago applied to the Festival Theatre…..

The lights go up for half time. The under-upholstered 1928 seats of Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre compel exercise; and observation. Whereas the glass curtain wall of the terraced front-of-house has performed well, the original Edinburgh auditorium is now very tired: the ceiling shabby. This is where the painterwork should be, if we are not to become ashamed of the place. Beautiful Covent Garden, no doubt infinitely better funded, is undergoing another revamp. Longer memories than mine would say that we are lucky to have a quasi-opera house at all in Edinburgh, even if not the thing of beauty promised by Edward Heath in the 1970’s. 

The plot thickens. Covent Garden’s versatile set transforms into a fortress redoubt from the previous village square through speakeasy; Edinburgh’s streaky murals stay put. But then there are the costumes: sexy slitted skirts in London, demure Laura Ashley cast-offs in Edinburgh, and the latter as out-of-place, whether in tinsel-town or dusty country. The goody-goody teenager Micaëla, pleading for Don José to return to an ageing mother in the Edinburgh production, could very well pass for the mother in disguise, if clothes-sense is the determinant.  If we cannot afford a decent set, then maybe a bob or two more on the haberdashery could lift the spirits?

The balance sheet, however, is not at all one-sided in favour of asset-rich London against the Scottish production, a country in which opera is treated as if the Government sees it purely as liability. Bizet carefully prepares the audience in each act by scene-setting overture, tone poem or, finally, a mood-music crowd chorus-specifically,  the exultant “A deux cuertos” in Act IV, which juxtaposes holiday traders’ exuberance of bullfight day, with the tragedy about to unfold. 

Maybe conscious of the 10.43 to Brookwood, Covent Garden cuts the length for the last-train brigade, drops (!) this famous scene and marches straight on with the arrival Russian Escamillo, earlier seen Putin-style on a horse to great effect (Animals are banned in Edinburgh on-stage, but not a passable imitation of smoking, judging by the stygian clouds emitted by Scots fag-puffing cigarerras.)

By contrast to London, our revival producer Benjamin Davis faithfully piles up the two-a-penny oranges for the opening chorus, and then cordons off the milling holiday crowd, cleverly making the players face the audience.  At last we escape the tableaux vivant approach, which is impossible to pull off in Edinburgh in the absence of scenery. We then all become swept into the drama by this (suitably economical) coup de théatre. All seemed set for a redemptive last act, and so it was. Until the curtain call. 

For in applauding this French drama of the unconquerable Spanish spirit; this tale of gypsy passion; this specific culture denoted by dance and costume, religion and revenge, what did the opera lovers receive in return? Just at the point when even the costumes could be forgiven, we had the appearance on stage, taking a bow, of the Don José lead, Noah Stewart.

In a kilt. Without, mark you, a sporran. Huge applause by some.

Cringe for others……….





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