Ahead of Barrie Kosky’s new production of Carmen, due at Covent Garden in February, the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker young artists programme is staging La Tragedie de Carmen at Wilton’s Music Hall.
This radical, small-scale adaptation of Bizet’s evergreen was made in 1981 by Peter Brook and the composer Marius Constant, and first seen at Paris’ Bouffes du Nord, a similarly intimate theatre to Wilton’s.
Director Gerard Jones draws inspiration from its history, suggesting that, for Carmen, la vie est un cabaret. Brook’s original conception was stark and stripped-down, but here there is a black lametta curtain, a stage-wide staircase and singers in garish modern dress – though Don Jose initially channels Che Guevara with his beard and military fatigues.
While Carmen mixes drama and comedy, Jones’ favoured tone is sometimes embarrassingly tongue-in-cheek. In particular, roaring baritone Gyula Nagy sends up the bullfighter Escamillo something rotten, and while Micaela is sumptuously sung by Francesca Chiejina, she lacks toughness.
Thomas Atkins, as the increasingly manic Don Jose, exudes the greatest intensity and his narrow-bore tenor suits French music. He is also the only singer to get the French text across with consistent success. Aigul Akhmetshina strikes seductive poses and sounds opulent, but, if she is to exercise her supposedly endless fascination, Carmen’s words need to mean something.
The evening’s greatest pleasure comes from the stylish playing of the Southbank Sinfonia, placed at the back of the stage, and the often exquisitely-judged conducting of James Hendry.