Rusty oil barrels, wooden pallets, loose tyres and corrugated iron, with a dilapidated, peeling billboard showing an advert of a carefree woman smoking as the backdrop – this is the “torrid South American landscape of dust and concrete” that OperaUpClose describe as central to their vision of Carmen. Yet it is just this middle-of-nowhere feel that paradoxically makes this version of Carmen stand out – small-town ennui, along with heat, is a vital part of the opera’s landscape.
Against this sweltering backdrop, Carmen fiercely asserts that “I will be free to live the way I choose”. More than any other line, this one epitomises Carmen’s character, while also emphasising the opera’s central conflict: namely, the struggle between duty and passion – or, in other words, the clash between obedience and freedom. While soldier Jose seems too bound to duty, insisting on reporting in to his barracks, Carmen’s free-spirited nature means she derides him as a slave to rules.
The two could not be more different in their conceptions of duty – Carmen’s only duty is to be truthful to herself, while Jose feels obligated by his duty as a soldier and to his mother. His obsession with Carmen means he increasingly attempts to control and force obedience from her, but he is only mocked further by her at every turn. Yet even while she mocks him, Carmen seems to recognise a darkness in him which she fears. Flora McIntosh as Carmen plays this well in this production, making Carmen’s fear evident through certain sidelong looks she gives Jose when she thinks he and the others aren’t looking.
Carmen’s fear of Jose proves itself valid as the second half unfolds. The set is stripped right down, ushering in a bleaker tone. Panels from the billboard advert that took prominence in the first half are removed and replaced with some forbidding grey panels amid gaping holes. The creeping sense is that there will be nowhere for Carmen to hide when it comes to her final altercation with Jose.
Through this stark change to the set, it is made clear that Carmen’s tragic ending can’t be averted. Nonetheless, OperaUpClose succeed impressively in playing up Carmen’s exuberance: for example, a scene of drunkenness is played very energetically by the excellent cast. The musicians deserve a special mention, though – a violinist, cellist, pianist and flutist truly bring the score to life, inexorably building up tension before exploding into a brutal denouement.
Carmen is playing the Soho Theatre until 19 September. For more information and tickets, see Soho Theatre website. Photo by OperaUpClose.