Peter Brook’s pared-down’s 1981 version of Bizet’s Carmen, is heady stuff. But it can feel at times like eating too many sweeties: the irresistible tunes and smouldering arias – spectacularly well-delivered by all four singers in this production – make no sense without the wider context.
Who is Carmen? We can guess she’s a desirable woman choosing between two lovers, but although Chloe Latchmore uses her long, sinuous legs and expressive eyes to signal her independence and a “je m’en fous” attitude, her status as a rebel in a stifling macho society is lost.
The same goes for Don Jose, sumptuously sung by young Indonesian tenor Satriya Krisna – without a barracks scene it is hard to believe he’s a tough militiaman goaded into murdering his cheating lover. Escamillo here is an officer not a toreador, though James Corrigan’s voice had the potential for heroic swagger and Alice Privett made up the quartet as a feisty, full-voiced Micaëla.
But I’m taking issue with Brook, not Pop-Up Opera’s production. The musical values are unimpeachable. Musical director Berrak Dyer conjures a full orchestra out of her piano, communicating the colour, breadth and volume of Bizet’s score.
Brook made the piece in the cavernous, peeling splendour of the Bouffes du Nord, an old music hall, and there is something of that atmosphere in Peckham’s old alms-house chapel, the Asylum.
Pop-Up’s staging, however, which has to adapt to many different spaces, is purely functional – a tiny stage backed by a screen for video projection (of scenes from the Spanish Civil War – this production is set in 1939) and surtitles. This works well when the singers were standing, but at key moments such as Don Jose’s rape and stabbing of Carmen, no one except the front row can see. Maybe in other venues this wouldn’t be such a problem, but that’s not the case here.