Review: La Tragédie de Carmen at Asylum Chapel

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.

Photo credit: Ugo Soffientini

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

Review: Il Matrimonio Segreto at Mill Hill Music Festival

Guest review by Lucrezia Pollice

Pop-up Opera attempts to engage and give agency to audiences who would not normally attend the opera. To do this, Cimarosa’s 1792 comedy Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage) has been modernised to a 21st century setting, acting is exaggerated and the concept is at times ridiculous, playing on the comedic side of the narrative.

It is a comedy to be taken with a laugh and an open mind, it pushes many boundaries and manages to reach many people in meaningful ways. Most importantly the music and quality of the performers is of really high quality, and that is the strength of the company. If anyone thought the opera was boring, go and see this performance and you will not be disappointed – this one is definitely not boring!

Photo credit: Richard Lakos, The Other Richard

The show was quick, did not bore the spectators and did receive laughs from the public. Although in Italian, large screens project short colloquially translated captions and satirical images accompany the story in a very easy to follow manner. The story commences with the secret marriage of Carolina (Chiara Vinci) to Paolino (Mark Bonney). However, Carolina’s father Geronimo (Joseph Kennedy), a rich and mean merchant, is Paolino’s master and would never approve their marriage. Around them is the classical comedic scene of that time – Elisetta (Emily Blanch), her sister, the English Count Robinson (Tom Asher) who wants to take Carolina’s hand and the rich widow, auntie Fidalma (Vivien Conacher), who also has a burning desire for Paolino. Conflict and tension are obviously present. Carolina’s father is determined to have his daughters married to respectable people and with the excitement of knowing that English Royalty is planning to take one of his daughters as a wife, stakes are raised high.

The performance is full of comedic over the top tableaux. Auntie Fidalma’s passion is exaggerated into a blazing sexual need – as she presents the audience with her book Sex and Joy and reproduces orgasms on stage – it is so ridiculous that it cannot be found funny! The sisters fight with boxing gloves and the English count is disturbingly but realistically extremely sexual.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos, The Other Richard

However, as an opera native and lover it was very difficult to watch the performance the entire way through. The musicality of the performance was lovely to listen to, but unfortunately modern satirical references, costumes and acting would override the music and in my opinion destroyed the magical poetics of the opera. Having said this, for non-opera goers this might be a very interesting beginning to engage in the art form.

Interview: Clementine Lovell, Pop-up Opera

Pop-up Opera was established in 2011 with the goal of encouraging more people to see and enjoy opera. After recently performing their first ever tragedy, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, the company return to comedy for their new production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which will – as always – take them to some unique and unforgettable venues around the UK.

Director Clementine Lovell founded Pop-up Opera on her return from living in Italy. “When I began training as an opera singer I had mixed reactions from my friends. Opera wasn’t really their thing – one even claimed to be ‘allergic’ to it. That stayed with me, and I wanted to prove them wrong, to show them that opera could be magical, hilarious, devastating or moving.

“Opera is so much a part of Italian culture, so broadly appreciated, and is performed everywhere, not just in the big houses. I grew up in a small village in the UK miles from an opera house. We never went to see it, it wasn’t an option. My uncle has a barn where he hosts folk and blues events and we put on an opera there for a largely non opera going audience. They loved it. It made me think about how the setting can have a bearing on people’s enjoyment, or their willingness to give it a go.”

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Each new space presents a unique challenge: “The production grows and evolves as it pops up in different places. We stage it in the rehearsal room and then adapt it to embrace each venue, so every night is different. The performance spaces vary wildly in size, shape, acoustic, feeling. We get in to the space on the day and start working out the entrances, exits, how to involve the audience… The performers have to think on their feet and be willing to allow some freedom and spontaneity. I think this keeps it fresh and creates a very special atmosphere.”

Clementine has countless happy memories of the unusual venues in which the company have performed. “One of our first venues was a boat made of scrap metal in Shoreham. The stairs were made out of an old car and the room we performed in had previously been part of a bus. We once performed 100ft underground in Clearwell Caves – to make some of the entrances the singers had to grope their way down a very dark tunnel with only headlamps to light the way, and one of them was terrified of bats!

“Another venue was the ruins of Raglan castle, where our backstage area was a crumbled down tower… We’ve also done shows in the Brunel Museum Thames Tunnel Shaft several times. It used to be more challenging to get in there – you had to crawl through a tiny entranceway and then down a scaffold stairway. It was always a nightmare getting props down there. We love going to the Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight, the audience always go crazy for it. But my favourite venue will always be our original, the cider barn in Herefordshire. You can have a glass of cider from the Ross-on-Wye Cider & Perry Co, and the atmosphere is always fantastic.”

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Il Barbiere di Siviglia is one of the world’s best-loved operas, but for those of us who may not know what it’s all about: “It’s the story of Count Almaviva, who wants Rosina to fall in love with him for who he is, not for his money or fame, so he conceals his true identity. In order to win her he must also get past her guardian, so many ridiculous obstacles and disguises ensue before he can get the girl.

“Our version is unique because it’s truly ‘pop-up’ in the way it can adapt to each space. We want to embrace the fact that we have an electric piano, and that we don’t have the budget of the Royal Opera House. We’ve stripped the costume and set right back so it allows the music and the story to shine through. We want to allow those things to take front stage, to show people that you don’t need all this extra stuff to make a comedy: with brilliant singing and acting and by involving the audience you can still create an amazing show.”

The opera will be sung in its original Italian with English captions, presented in Pop-up Opera’s signature style: “We believe that you can still make opera accessible when performed in the original language. The music, the intentions of the actors, the interaction between the characters and the power of the drama get the story across. The captions are there to complement, not to detract. They keep the audience broadly abreast of the story but don’t demand their attention all the time. With a comedy the captions can add another layer of humour, and we can play around with the modern context. In our last production, which was a drama, we kept the translation more ‘straight’ but still with the same approach of captions rather than a full text translated into continuous surtitles.”

As a company, Pop-up Opera aim to broaden opera’s appeal and challenge the perception that it’s stuffy and elitist. “We want to make our productions engaging, exciting, hilarious, dramatic, moving… We hope audiences go away having laughed until their cheeks ache or having been moved to tears, that they will have been drawn into the story and connected with its characters. We hope they take away with them a thirst for more opera, whether it’s by fringe companies or at the Royal Opera House, and a different attitude towards what they thought opera was about or represented. Never been to the opera? Come to one of our shows! You won’t regret it.”

Il Barbiere di Siviglia can be seen around the UK until 1st September 2016 – check the website for full dates and venues.


Review: I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Carousel

As I took my seat last night for Pop-Up Opera’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, I heard someone explain, ‘It’s basically Romeo and Juliet without any of the nice bits.’ Which, as it turns out, is a pretty accurate summary of this opera by Vincenzo Bellini. By the time our story begins, Romeo and Giulietta are already embroiled in a secret love affair, helped by their friend Lorenzo, and Romeo’s on the run for killing her brother. Giulietta’s father, Capellio, decides to marry her off to Tebaldo, and in desperation she fakes her death. But Lorenzo’s prevented from getting a message to Romeo, who – as in Shakespeare’s version of the tale – goes to Giulietta’s tomb to kill himself.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Now, I haven’t seen a huge amount of opera, but I think it’s fair to assume this was quite a unique experience, even for those who have. First, the venue. Pop-Up Opera are a touring company who bring opera to new audiences in unusual locations; this particular tour will take them to the Asylum Chapel in Peckham, the London Museum of Water and Steam, and the spectacular Minack Theatre in Cornwall. In comparison, our venue – the basement bar of a restaurant in Marylebone – may not have been the most romantic, but it was still a suitably intimate and atmospheric setting, and my only complaint was that occasionally events took place on the other side of a concrete pillar.

The classic love story of Romeo and Giulietta has been reworked by stage director James Hurley into a modern thriller, in which the Montecchi and Capuleti are rival gangs locked in a long-running feud. Instead of swords and potions, this version has guns and pills, and unfolds on a set illuminated by harsh electric light and littered with crumpled paper and overturned chairs. From the outset, there are moments of brutal violence (I know I wasn’t the only audience member who flinched when Capellio advanced on a captive Romeo holding a pair of pliers), and the fact that we know how the story’s going to end does nothing to dispel the tension in what turns out to be a gripping drama.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

In another original twist, Harry Percival’s English captions (inspired by Eurotrash, apparently) don’t seek to translate everything word for word, instead summarising each scene in the style of an old black and white movie. This has a dual effect: it means we get to concentrate on the action, and not spend an entire evening staring at the wall, and it allows a little more artistic licence with the translation – I can’t help wondering how Bellini would have felt about his hero being called an ‘asshole’, but it made me smile all the same.

But the modern translations, as amusing as they occasionally are, don’t detract from the beauty and emotion of Bellini’s score, or the quality of the performances – proving once and for all that you don’t necessarily need to understand every word to appreciate what’s going on. Each member of our cast – there are two on the tour – gives it everything, and it’s easy to forget there are only five of them, and that they’re backed by a single piano (played by musical director Berrak Dyer), not a full orchestra. Flora McIntosh’s Romeo is brash and reckless, while Cliff Zammit-Stevens is a sympathetic Tebaldo; an enemy he may be, but it’s clear he genuinely loves Giulietta and is as broken by her ‘death’ as his rival. Andrew Tipple’s proud Capellio is every inch the mafia boss, concerned only with family honour, even if it means rejecting his beloved daughter, and Matthew Palmer, in stark contrast, is a far gentler presence as the lovers’ mutual friend Lorenzo.

But it’s Alice Privett who gives the most memorable – and emotional – performance as Giulietta, a young woman caught between love and duty, and pulled this way and that by the headstrong men in her life. Her visible pain during the lovers’ final farewell means that emotions inevitably run high offstage as well as on.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Pop-Up Opera’s aim is to make opera accessible to a wider audience, people who may perhaps have dismissed it in the past as pretentious or boring. In this they certainly succeed, taking a classic story and giving it a modern twist, so that it feels fresh and exciting. And while it’s clear that they’re a company with a cheeky sense of humour, this doesn’t come at the expense of a high quality performance.

So if you think opera’s not for you, maybe give these guys a try, before you decide for sure…

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉