REVIEW: Midland Opera’s ‘Carmen’ tackles controversial themes in a thrilling new production
A brand new version of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ is thrilling audiences in Birmingham in unexpected and refreshing venues where opera is rarely heard.
This production of the opera boasts a racially diverse and exciting cast, and the drama at the heart of the opera, which is sometimes diluted due to large and lavish productions, is here brought right to the fore which makes it one of the most startling and moving ‘Carmen’ productions in recent times by Midland Opera. This ‘Carmen’ dares to explore themes that continue to hit the headlines.
Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ is an opera with such a melodic pull that people who have never even ventured into an opera house have heard of it in some shape or form. The music has been used in a multitude of films, advertisements, cartoons, dance shows, and even sampled by Hip-Hop producers. The list of inspiration derived from ‘Carmen’ is long. It is one of the most popular of operas and has been filmed, both staged versions and cinematic adaptations, and it continues to fill opera houses around the world. The story has become familiar and it’s now very hard to design a new version without it looking a bit stale and repetitious.
The plot of the opera is familiar territory, and very cinematic. Don José, a soldier on guard duty in Seville is told to keep watch over a new prisoner, a gypsy girl called Carmen, who was caught causing a breach of the peace. He falls in love with her and Carmen manages to escape. Don José loses his position and later finds out that his mother is ill and her last wish is for him to marry Micaëla. However, despite the fact Micaëla loves him, Don José blindly pursues Carmen who is now romantically linked with a toreador called Escamillo. This leads to jealousy and rage which culminates in a tragedy.
Midland Opera’s new production of ‘Carmen’ is directed by Sarah Helsby Hughes who previously directed and sung the title role in the hypnotic version of Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece ‘Norma’ at The Old Rep last year. She has crafted a refreshing and bold production that dares to take the still wet ink of the #MeToo headlines of our times and splash it across a new version of the opera that delves into the darker regions of the casual abuse of women by a society that seems to side with the male abusers rather than show sympathy towards the female victims.
The opera was first staged in 1875 yet the themes and questions that Bizet explored in ‘Carmen’ are still applicable today. What is ‘love’? Who dares to cage and control it? Can a woman pursue her own happiness without a man haunting her from the shadows? Will there ever be a time when a woman can truly be free to choose her own destiny without suffering inequality or violence? Can a woman be loved for who she is rather than judged by her gender and her looks or what she offers sexually?
Sarah takes the bull by the horns, so to speak, and removes the pomp and circumstance from the opera, and jettisons lavish sets, removing all superfluous distractions and overblown paraphernalia to allow the audience to home in on the psychological intensity at the core of this new production.
The character of Carmen is usually portrayed as casual, voluptuous, promiscuous, and aloof, which often translates into a woman who fails to generate much sympathy from the audience. Their allegiance usually lies with Don José, the ‘wronged’ hero who is ‘betrayed’ by a flirty vamp. This misogyny is dispensed with and in comes a Carmen who the audience is immediately sympathetic to, this is a woman who has been wronged, she will dare to stand and fight for her happiness and she will pursue her dreams despite the obstacles strewn across her path by a male-dominated society.
Katherine Cooper, a mezzo-soprano with a sensual delivery, brings heat and a dramatic depth to the role of the fiery gypsy, Carmen. Right from the moment when she steps into the performance space the eyes home in on her, her strength conveyed through the lithe way she moves and sings the world famous ‘Hanabera’.
In a very startling scene, which underlines what will come later, Carmen is surrounded by a group of men dressed in army fatigues. They circle around her, pawing at her, lingering over her figure, and they begin to snatch and tear off her outer work overalls, piece-by-piece, the material ripping off to reveal a blood red figure-hugging outfit underneath the overalls.
The men then get down on their knees and produce a pair of red high-heeled shoes which they erotically tease onto Carmen’s feet. They play with Carmen as if she is a life-size doll, their plaything, something to be trussed this way and that without a care for her feelings.
The danger and threat of sexual violence are never far away for Carmen, the tension always bubbling underneath the scenes as the opera unfolds.
Katherine makes the audience side with her by showing Carmen’s fear and vulnerability in several key scenes where her singing and acting ability combine to produce an emotional ambiance which shows that despite the exterior bravado which she puts on in the face of threats, she is actually deeply hurt inside but she hides it because she knows that to expose her pain to those around her would only result her in being seen as weak.
Carmen’s friends see a strong woman in her, and she smiles, but the audience knows that beneath her confident and sassy demeanour she is concealing her fear, pain, and insecurities. This experience is something that many modern women will identify with, better to stay silent about the abuse than speak about it which might result in further humiliation and ridicule.
Domestic and sexual violence against women is widespread in our world, both past and present, but many victims remain silent due to social or psychological pressure or they are permanently silenced. Their lives sometimes violently ending at the end of a blade dripping with their blood.
There is a scene where Don José grabs Carmen by the hair and drags her away, he stamps his authority on her, and the message is clear and disturbing. He ‘owns’ Carmen, she is his ‘property’, a possession that he desires to keep under guard. If she ever dares to disobey his commands there will be a savage backlash.
Mitesh Khatri performs the tenor role of Don José as a man torn between duty and honour, both to the army and to his ailing mother, and torn between two women, Carmen and Micaëla. His pursuit and love for Carmen blinds him to his duty and the dying wishes of his mother. His initial joyous abandonment to love and desire for Carmen are rapidly replaced by an edgy darkness that gnaws away at his daily existence.
His peace becomes unbalanced as thoughts of Carmen flirting with other men flash through his feverish mind. Jealousy consumes him and instead of a war hero, we have a man who is seeing the world through a mind fuelled by the compulsion to own, possess, and control another human being. Carmen refuses to be manipulated and reshaped into what Don José demands of her.
Mitesh reveals a duality at the heart of Don José. This is a conflicted soldier whose paranoia is eroding away his inner tranquillity. At the start of the opera Mitesh shows Don José as an innocent bystander who has no idea about the emotional storm that will shortly engulf his mind, he lounges back watching the children dancing and skipping around the city square, and he smiles with them, taking delight in their joy, totally oblivious to the encroaching darkness that will shroud his world.
As his mind unravels in the latter half of the opera there is a change in the exterior and interior world of Don José. The olive green army fatigues, and his warm natural smile are replaced with a black bomber jacket and his smile replaced with a nightmarish grimace, his eyes glinting with questions and uncertainty.
Mitesh’s performance conveys fragility and his facial expressions show signs of an internal battle going on as Don José’s soul burns with suspicion and paranoia. This is a soldier who is haunted by things he has seen and done, his movements and posture display clues that he is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. His mania is laced with the deadly emotion of jealousy which results in a volcanic eruption of emotion at the close of the opera.
Escamillo is given a refreshing new slant in this production by having baritone Michael Lam play the role of the toreador. He is an exciting, radical, and thrilling choice, arriving all dressed in white like Tony Montana.
This is ‘Scarface’ with a difference.
This gangster’s weapon is not a gun but his seductive and commanding voice which ignites Carmen’s passion. Michael waves his arms about like a conductor marshalling the chorus in front of him, the music rising like a wave, and he bellows out the ‘Toreador Aria’ like a president at an election rally.
He sends the crowds into a frenzy of emotion. His eyes alert and bright, searching out the beautiful girls in the crowd, and when his gaze settles upon Carmen there is a crackle of virile and lusty energy in the way he sings and lingers over the words.
Michael is a really charismatic singer who grabs the attention with his vocal and dramatic flourishes.
Hannah McDonald sings the role of Micaëla in this production. Unlike many previous versions of the opera where this character is swamped by the overall opulence, huge crowds scenes, and directors insisting on placing the dramatic and romantic spotlight solely on the passion between Carmen and Don José, in this version the director emphasises the role of Micaëla which results in a more dynamic personality.
She becomes a living and breathing component of the drama, instead of pushing her to the periphery and making her appear as a minor character who helps to push along the narrative, Sarah makes us genuinely care for Micaëla by placing her right in the centre of the performance area and making her become a counterweight to the love affair between Carmen and Don José.
Instead of the opera coming to a dull standstill whenever Micaëla traditionally appears in the opera, and the pacing slowing right down, here the drama continues to engage and pulse because Sarah allows the audience to see Micaëla as a woman with feelings, with a deep love for Don José, and when Don José betrays her love by blindly pursuing Carmen, we see how it destroys Micaëla’s hopes and dreams.
Hannah makes us see Micaëla as a blue-blooded woman, she is dressed in blue, and she is loyal and caring. Her arias are sung with a beautiful clarity evoking the same spiritual quality as solemn hymns. On the darkened and subdued stage she becomes the focus, the light falling over her face, a divine atmosphere builds as she pours out her heart and soul through Bizet’s lyrical score.
Conductor James Longstaffe uses a small chamber ensemble which allows for the intimacy of Bizet’s composition to rise to the surface and cement the psychological drama that this production brings to the fore. The bombastic and cascading flourishes of the orchestra are tamed which allows the brooding menace and emotional ache that Carmen, Don José and Micaëla are feeling to be heard rather than stampeded over by the clash and thunder of an orchestra romping through the score.
The rippling melodies are laden with sadness that are sometimes drowned out by the force of a full blown orchestra. James employs a delicate pace that accentuates the psychological subtext and gives it room and space to be heard.
The subtleties and nuances of Bizet’s remarkable composition are revealed through this smaller scale rendition which provides a wider scope for the vocalizations of the central characters to shine through in a deeply moving manner.
The Midland Opera Chorus, some who have previously worked in productions with the Birmingham Opera Company, once again rose to the occasion and brought a fresh vitality to this latest work. Their passion for the opera medium is an absolute joy to watch.
They worked hard throughout the performance, singing and acting, and their choreographed movements during the crowd scenes kept the drama unfolding and moving along. In some scenes they produced haunting tableaus that highlighted key social issues from the modern world.
In one segment, where the chorus bedded down for the night on the hard surface of the floor, it immediately brought to mind the scene right outside the venue. Homeless people, some including ex-soldiers who have been neglected, abandoned, and forgotten, and now sleeping rough on the streets only a street away from the building where the opera was performed.
The choice of venue was inspired and makes one realize that there is huge possibility with listed buildings that have been left abandoned in a derelict condition. The Stirchley Baths was left empty for some years and was decaying away after it closed until funding was secured and restoration could take place and the building reopened as a hub for the community as a space where arts and community events take place.
In its heyday, the Stirchley Baths would remain open during the winter months when most swimming pools would traditionally close. The engineers at Stirchley Baths would seal off the pool by constructing a dancing stage across the expanse and hosting ballroom dancing sessions.
This idea of using a building beyond what it was constructed for, and having it open at a time when it might be closed, is inspired. There are so many beautiful buildings around Birmingham that are lying dormant, derelict, and after a lapse of time they are torn down and replaced by car parks or faceless office blocks.
It is vital that the Arts Council save these buildings and find a way of using that space for hosting something that lifts the human spirit and inspires the next generation of artists, directors, singers, writers, and dancers. In these austere times, with funding for arts projects either reduced or totally cut, and Brexit causing fear and paranoia, it is important to understand the positive aspects of art which can raise the human spirit during uncertain political, social and economic times.
Midland Opera chose the perfect location to unveil their new production. ‘Carmen’ is an opera that has been seen by many yet Sarah invests new energy and passion into the drama. Similarly, Stirchley Baths is an old building yet it thrives and survives by adapting a fresh and vibrant new outlook that resonates with the people.
Sarah proves once again the importance of opera as an art form that can be used to excite and tantalize an audience, and while people are being entertained they are also given a chance to see the human condition in a new light. Her use of cold blue light as the opera began its descent towards the cold and brutal climax was like the pools of shadowy light seen in Film Noir movies. Faces clouded with secrets and dark desires, all simmering under the surface, waiting for the right spark to bubble over and explode.
Sarah kept the flow of the narrative flowing, and the tale unfolded in such a way that even a newcomer to the story would be immediately drawn in without losing any sense of what was taking place. The opera was sung in English and the translation was clear, precise, and the thrust of the narrative and individual arias shone through clearly.
The modern dress production, with a minimal set, had a very naturalistic approach which never lost focus of the main themes of the story. The story still tingles the senses, and now it resonates with the headlines from the modern era.
While the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden spend untold thousands of dollars and pounds on their productions of ‘Carmen’ and fill the stages with the toreador sometimes arriving on a horse (some productions even drag a bull onto the stage), or employ a troupe of dancers, or construct huge lavish sets that dwarf over the singers, all of these ultimately end up distracting from the main focus of the tragedy at the heart of the opera.
This new version of ‘Carmen’ by Sarah Helsby Hughes for Midland Opera offers up a vision that reflects our world and it makes us think about where we are today. People talk about freedom and equality, and they say women can pursue their dreams and hopes in safety without fear of reprisals. This production of ‘Carmen’ dares to expose the stark reality. Our world has a long way to go when it comes to allowing women real freedom to be independent and free.
The opera was performed at the Stirchley Baths on Saturday 25th and Sunday 26th November and will next be performed at St. Martin’s in the Bullring on Friday 30th November and Saturday 1st December.
More details, including how to get tickets, can be found here.