Review: Carmen (Theatre Royal Glasgow)
Updated: Jul 28, 2023
Half-play, half-opera, half-successful
Falling in love with someone because they threw you a flower is hardly realistic, but you don’t expect anyone to point that out in an opera. Scottish Opera’s English translation Carmen, directed by John Fulljames, opens with Don José, played by Alok Kumar, confessing to murder in a police interrogation room. From there, we cut between play-like scenes of him being interrogated and operatic scenes from the classic tragedy, which are told in flashbacks. In Fulljames’s vision, not only are José’s actions under investigation but the revolutionary atmosphere that surrounded him.
By contrasting the romance of the doomed relationship with the cold reality of the police cell the form of Opera is simultaneously celebrated and scrutinised. It upholds the drama of that world but prompts us to think about the cruelty and the violence that underpin the story. In Sarah Beaton’s design, the walls of José’s cell raise a few feet above the ground when the flashbacks are being told and linger there, threatening to entrap him at any moment. This is an effective way of reminding the audience of his predicament, but Fulljames takes it a step too far with the constant presence of the investigator, played by Carmen Pieraccini, who sculks around the stage like an uninvited party guest during the flashbacks.
As well as contrasting romance and reality, Fulljames tries to inject the Opera scenes with working-class spirit, peaking at the end of the first act when a mob assembles carrying signs that read “Police Everywhere, Justice Nowhere”. In theory, it is a fitting approach to Carmen’s revolutionary themes, but in practice, it can’t help but be non-committal. I want to see flamenco dresses that look like they were bought from a charity shop, and I want the crowd swarming to the bullfight like a football match, anything to ruin the gloss of the opera. Indeed, that bullfight proves a sticking point to the revolutionary theme at all. Just as the community seem to be all gearing up to revolt, they decide to upsticks and go for a day out instead. It is an unavoidable climax, but one that unpicks a key theme of this production.
Photo Credit: James Glossop
But whatever themes or twists a performance may boast, it isn’t enough without a strong lead as Carmen. Justina Gringytè is certainly playful, and when she works her charms on the gentlemen she has a smile that tells you trouble is coming. But as soon as Habanera starts, Gringytè seems out of her depth. Her singing is nasal and strained and is accompanied by a distracting facial expression that makes her look as though she inhaled a large amount of seawater. Her shortfalls would be less obvious if she wasn’t so outperformed by Hye-Youn Lee as Micaëla. Her tender, spine-chilling solo is the highlight of the night, and everybody knows it. Kumar’s adaptability from play to opera is admirable (although he seems most at home singing his lines rather than saying them) but his lack of chemistry with Gringytè makes it hard to invest in the tragedy of the story.
The successes and failings of this production are scattered across the stage. For every great directorial detail, there’s another that lets it down, for every blazing performance there is one that falls flat. It may not be the storming success that an opera like Carmen deserves, but it certainly has some arresting moments. Three stars.
Whispers from the crowd: "The orchestra was really good, the ensemble was really good. But Don “Joe-se”? We are in Europe, not America. Micaëla was excellent, but she was let down by the principles. Carmen sounded like a strangled goose. Do you know if the Principles are Scottish Opera? Because if they are I’m not going to vote for Scottish Independence anymore. Also, as a linguist and a snob I can tell you that an opera in translation is an abomination. What did you think?"
“It was Gilbert and Sullivan meets Taggart.”
Carmen has completed its run at Theatre Royal Glasgow
Photo Credit: James Glossop