As operas go, Bizet’s Carmen is a good choice for anyone in search of an entry-level option, because chances are most of us know more of the music than we think. In La Tragédie de Carmen, Peter Brook, in collaboration with composer Marius Constant and writer Jean-Claude Carrière, takes this a step further, condensing Bizet’s four-act original – and all its greatest hits – into just 80 minutes. This means we lose all but four of the characters, and instead focus solely on the tragic “love rectangle” between the protagonists.
Micäela (Alice Privett) arrives from the country looking for her childhood friend Don José (Satriya Krisna), a corporal in the Nationalist army, with whom she’s in love. He, however, has fallen for the seductive Carmen (Chloe Latchmore), who leaves him after a brief romance for Escamillo (James Corrigan), an officer. After trying and failing to win her back, Don José murders his former lover in a fit of passion.
Directed by John Wilkie, Pop-Up Opera’s production of La Tragédie de Carmen is exquisitely performed by the four singers and musical director Berrak Dyer; watching and listening to her perform the opera’s entire score on piano is worth the ticket price all by itself. Though it may be much smaller in scale than a traditional performance of Carmen, there’s nothing half-hearted about this production, which brims over throughout with passion, intensity and obvious talent. As the tragic love story unfolds, a video screen shows images from the Spanish Civil War – which, in this updated version of the story, has just ended – as well as Pop-Up Opera’s trademark minimalist surtitles, which provide us with just enough of a translation to understand the context of each scene, but don’t distract from the action.
Cutting back the story so dramatically has both advantages and drawbacks. On the plus side, it’s much shorter and more accessible than the original, with a more straightforward storyline, which makes this an ideal ticket for an opera first-timer. On the other hand, it’s all over so quickly that there’s a risk of the audience not becoming fully invested in Don José’s relationship with Carmen, or appreciating why he reacts so violently to her rejection. This is dealt with, to some extent, by setting the action at the end of the Civil War, and portraying both Don José and his love rival Escamillo as having suffered some trauma as a result of what they’ve seen and experienced during the conflict. In light of his obvious fragility, perfectly captured in Satriya Krisna’s performance, the apparent ease with which Don José is driven to madness doesn’t seem quite so hard to accept.
Peter Brook’s aim in writing La Tragédie de Carmen was “to focus on the intense interaction, the tragedy of four people” that lies at the heart of the story. Pop-Up Opera have stayed true to that purpose, and while some may take issue with Brook’s extreme edits, it’s hard to find fault with this particular production of his work. (That said, I do recommend sitting at the front if you can – depending on the venue, some audience members further back may struggle to see what’s happening during the final climactic scene.) Whether you think you like opera or not, this one is certainly worth a visit.
La Tragédie de Carmen continues on tour – for full details visit www.popupopera.co.uk.