Shoestring company OperaUpClose is renowned for stripping opera back to its bare essentials, but its previous Carmen production three years ago came under fire for reducing Bizet’s perennially popular grand opera to 80 minutes, little more than a highlights package. Lessons have been learned. This rethink gives Carmen a less radical pared-down treatment that retains the integrity of the fiery story, plausibly transposing the setting from 19th-century Seville to a South American Nowheresville dustbowl but changing little else. The tune-packed score is all but intact too and, thanks to Harry Blake's skilful reduction and the superb quartet of musicians, led from the piano by Berrak Dyer, who play it, Bizet's orchestra is, amazingly, barely missed.
Director Robin Norton-Hale's plain-spoken translation and the cast's excellent diction (particularly impressive in the sparkling rapid-fire quintet) ensure compelling dramatic impact. Reasonably, Norton-Hale invites us to see the tragic heroine as a victim of domestic abuse rather than an inevitably but romantically doomed gypsy flirt, so the production has a darker tone than some. Flora McIntosh's Carmen is not overtly sexy, but she conveys a capricious and strong-willed woman who is also vulnerable. Her final, chilling confrontation with Anthony Flaum's increasingly skin-crawling Jose, her dangerously besotted former lover, feels all too grimly real.
If a full orchestra, chorus and elaborate set are your prime concerns, this is not for you. But with a strong-voiced, tight-knit cast that fully commits to the drama in the intimate Soho Theatre space (a merciful liberation from the stifling backroom of The Kings Head, Islington), this Carmen makes a powerfully direct impact no opera house can match.