There is no definitive edition of Bizet’s Carmen. In January and March 1875, two different editions of the score were published, neither of which match the conducting score for its premiere (also March 1875, at the Opéra Comique, Paris). As a result, musicologists differ as to Bizet’s true intentions for Carmen and its characters: the work is free for directors to interpret. However, its sheer popularity has built an inevitable weight of consensus on the “fearlessness” of Carmen, who picks up José as a lover, then abandons him for the handsome toreador Escamillo – with fatal consequences, as José’s jealousy turns murderous.
Few directors, if any, have chosen to deviate from this norm, let alone to reimagine Carmen as a parable of domestic violence, with Carmen as the fearful, yet determined victim. But that is what Robin Norton-Hale has done for OperaUpClose at the Soho Theatre, where Bizet’s orchestral score has been translated by Harry Blake into a miniature version for just four instrumentalists: Berrak Dyer on piano, Theodore Balkwill on cello, Emily Callaghan on flute and Rosemary Hinton on violin, carving out their skeletal lines with unflinching energy and poise, sounding like the in-house cinema band for a silent film. It is true that, as a practical narrative of feminist empowerment, the “fearless” Carmen is in fact unhelpful, because her very fearlessness is unattainable: we can’t all be anarchic misfits, or society would collapse. Norton-Hale’s more ‘real’, ‘ordinary woman’ Carmen is certainly interesting: but is she, ultimately, as successful as her wilder incarnations? And does Norton-Hale’s vision allow Bizet’s opera to successfully explore the complicated world of domestic violence?
Of course, there is a limit to how ‘ordinary’ any Carmen can be, given the demands of the story, though a woman’s right to choose – and reject – her sexual partners, so daring a concept in 1875, is thankfully normal today. Lilly Papaioannou’s sultry, sassy and determined Carmen is still a cut above her friends Mercedes (a characterful Camilla Bull) and Frasquita (an entertaining Hannah Sawle): Roisin Walsh’s prim and slightly shrill Micaëla (who sadly gets the worst of the very dodgy costumes, though the set is appealingly industrial) could never possibly be competition. A natural leader, Papaioannou’s Carmen is dangerously playful, and yet also dangerously unsure about what she really wants. She flirts mercilessly with Julian Debreuil’s sweet, simple officer Zuniga, switching the charm on and off like a lighthouse on a dark night until Zuniga feels understandably put out and bewildered. Her interactions with José begin accidentally, persist in a callously misjudged mood, and are prolonged by a stubborn wish to challenge José’s conformist nature: Norton-Hale’s reading has at least produced an essay in how adults can dramatically fail to understand each other in the name of love.
If the men in Carmen’s life are confused, unfortunately, so are we in the audience. Unless you know Carmen inside out, this version is so drastically cut that it actively damages the opera’s narrative sense, with entire scenes missing from the plot: so, the first we hear of José’s trip to prison is when he gets out (and Carmen’s actual implication isn’t immediately clear); Carmen’s smuggler friends Remendado (an animated Philip Lee) and Dancairo (quiet strong-man Tom Colwell) double as soldiers in the first scene, thus seeming throughout the opera to be deserting soldiers rather than enterprising fellow bandits – which doesn’t quite fit. Acting across the cast is patchy: excellent at times, positively amateurish at others. Nevertheless, the honey-toned Carmen from Papaioannou, and a superb Escamillo from Marc Callahan, make OperaUpClose’s version well worth seeing: Callahan in particular gives a fabulous performance, his character debonair and fully realised at all times, his rich tenor handling “Toreador” with a freshness that makes it truly special.
It is Mike Bracegirdle’s José who pays the highest price for those swingeing cuts to the story: Bracegirdle gives a spirited performance, but he has to move his character from intense countryman to psychotic ex-lover in such a short space of time that it’s hard to make emotional sense of the tatters of plot left to him. Crucially, we end sharply with Carmen’s death, with José’s (original) subsequent confession scene erased. While this does move the focus entirely to Carmen as victim, it rather over-simplifies José, who is left as just another bad-tempered bully: and by over-simplifying an argument, you weaken it.
This is where, rather than starting an interesting conversation about domestic violence, Norton-Hale’s brutal reading ironically tends to block fruitful discussion. Of course Carmen shouldn’t die, and of course José shouldn’t kill her, and in a sense it is as simple as that: but if you can only make it that simple by actively removing the original nuances of Bizet’s characters, you have removed the moral jeopardy – and subtlety – of the opera at the same time. We are invited to judge Carmen by our own standards, rather than allowing her the usual wild freedom from social norms: and, in this reading, she selfishly and thoughtlessly plays with fire, and gets understandably and inevitably burnt. This doesn’t help the cause of domestic violence survivors. If Norton-Hale’s idea could be worked through an entire, full Carmen, the results might be astonishing: and they’re still interesting in this stripped-down version. But any gains are balanced out by the sacrifices.
Go see it, but make sure it’s not the only Carmen you see.
Until 19 September at Soho Theatre. Box office: 020 7478 0100