In this new production by Scottish Opera, Bizet’s most famous stage work is relocated to the latter years of the fascist dictatorship of General Franco. In director John Fulljames’s staging, the tale of the soldier José, driven to murderous passion by the seductive “gypsy” Carmen, is given a fresh political dimension.
Not only that, but with the introduction of a detective (played by Scottish actor Carmen Pieraccini) the opera becomes something of a police procedural. Like viewers of the hit television series Columbo, the audience knows from the outset who has committed the crime. The focus, therefore, is not on what happens to the ill-fated Carmen, but on why and how. As the ever-present investigator interrogates José and pieces together the jigsaw of his crime, her capacious office plays host to the entire action of the opera, with the wall's panels moving to accommodate shifts in scene. They also function as a huge screen for the live and recorded video (by projection designer Will Duke) that facilitates much of Fulljames’s storytelling.
It does not prove difficult to fit the action of the opera into the final years of the Franco regime. When José’s childhood sweetheart Micaëla (played by the outstanding South Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee) arrives in Seville, for example, she is subjected to a display of predictably toxic masculinity by her erstwhile lover’s army comrades. Carmen herself is on the receiving end of racism and misogyny, being referred to by one female factory worker as a “dirty gypsy wh---”. Later in the opera, the smugglers turn political and lead a protest against police brutality.
This relocation of the piece in time, and the thematic construction that attends it, is never allowed to distract from the narrative thrust of the famous libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (adapted from the novella by Prosper Mérimée). Carmen (played with fabulous sensuality, scorn and recklessness by the Lithuanian mezzo-soprano Justina Gringytė) is still the seductive driving force in the tragedy. José (portrayed by the excellent tenor Alok Kumar) remains a figure almost predestined to destructive and self-immolating desperation. And, of course, Escamillo, the toreador (played with appropriate swagger by New Zealand baritone Phillip Rhodes), is still the plot-turning people’s hero.
Few operas boast as many famous arias and choruses as Carmen, and they are delivered here with tremendous feeling and energy. Gringytė and Kumar are superb throughout. However, on opening night, it was Lee’s stunningly emotive rendering of Micaëla's Aria that had the audience in raptures. Under the baton of conductor Dane Lam, the orchestra plays Bizet’s remarkable score with a delicate, sensitive freshness and, when required, an invigorating heft.
If this generally accomplished production has a shortcoming it is in its central design concept. The combination of a minimalist set with a great many projections, whilst often ingenious, becomes a little tiresome. For instance, in the scene in which Carmen tells her own future using tarot, a bird’s eye view camera is used, for the umpteenth time, to show a relentless sequence of death cards. The visual egregiousness of this moment speaks to the show’s over-reliance on video technology.
Despite this shortcoming, this is a strong and inventive Carmen which is bound to wow audiences across Scotland.
Until May 20, then touring until June 17. Tickets: scottishopera.org.uk