It was hot work in the cigarette factory- all that panting and gasping, and the ever impassioned heaving- never mind the shrieking knife fights. And it didn’t help that it was the hottest weekend of the year – so far. I was at the heady and intoxicating production of Carmen 2010 at the London O2 – directed by David Freeman – with Gareth Hancock [Musical Director] and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra .
This exotic and erotic show was set in the round of this great coliseum of a home, and starred Christina Nassif as Carmen with John Hudson as José and the superb Elizabeth Atherton as Micaëla.
The staging area whirled around and ran to centre stage – with the orchestra at one end. Performers tended to emerge from the Gates of Life at the corners of the event area, like gladiators facing their doom or glory. There must have been around 100 performers. I counted 35 girls in the cigarette factory- it was quite the largest production of the opera that I have ever seen. The idea behind the staging was to try to replicate the circuitous nature of the Street of Serpents in Seville. Furthermore, images from the macabre Feria Carnivals added fear and discomfort to the scenes and prepared the public for the doom laden thread that lay ahead.
Carmen is an opéra comique – in that it is spoken in places. This gives the work a ‘Hollywood musical’ quality and probably explains its runaway success in modern times. There is no doubt that Carmen is a favourite piece of music loved by both young and old. But this was not always the case, and back in 1875, when the work was premiered, it was defeated by both critics and the public, who protested that it was not serious enough. Bizet died before his work was fully accepted.
At the start of the drama, portly José is but a simple soldier and his music is that of the common folk and in tune with Micaëla’s. By Act 2, though, José is a complicated rogue who can only be controlled by the summoning of the bugle. Micaëla, by contrast, remains dignified and loving throughout, and equally unblemished by the tawdriness of the situations as they develop as José is lost within the passion he has for Carmen.
Much is made of Carmen’s slippery nature and her venomous almost serpentine machinations. These characteristics are musically enhanced by chromaticism, en-harmonic pivots and coiling motifs. But the sharp rhythms and exotic percussion also alludes to her ‘other worldliness’ and her Gypsy origins. She never quite feels comfortable in any social group – not the cigarette girls, nor the smugglers or even with other Gypsy girls. But Carmen is perfectly comfortable within herself and she accepts her nature and the nature of others around her, in a way that few can understand. She even gives in to her fatalistic ending – not only at the conclusion of the opera but also in the card reading scene.
Her fidelity and sharp mind is effectively introduced to the audience through the shrill nature of the central motif. This often sounds ironic and even patchy at times – like the unreliable character herself. Christina Nassif played the character with the sneer and the sensual passion that the part deserved, but I thought that the depth of her expression and the overall dramatic quality of her performance was not as enthusiastic as it should be. When compared with the stunning fragile beauty of Micaëla’s air in E flat – brought to subtle life by Elizabeth Atherton – you could hear the limitations in the vocal power of Cristina.
Favourite moments were, of course, The Flower song, the Toréador’s Song and The Habanera – all gracefully and majestically brought to the fore by the superb orchestra conducted by Gareth Hancock. The vastness of the staging and the colossal size of the cast meant that – at any one time – several scores of performers were ‘out of line of sight’ of the conductor. However, the production was perfectly handled by carefully positioned video monitors around the arena, so that the artists could each see the conductor from wherever they were. I was concerned that some of the most intimate details of the plot would actually be ‘lost’ in the huge space. And I was fortunate to have a front row seat; (I do not know how folk managed to careen into those dizzying heights at the top of the event area- be warned that if you go to this venue you must not be scared of heights and you must wear sensible shoes.) But care and attention were given to the amplification of the voices, to provide as authentic operatic experience as possible for the audience. And spotlights and creative stage management meant that the limelight effectively fell at the right time and the right place to magnify or highlight the more important elements within the plot.
The last time I saw Carmen it had a ‘real horse’ and wonderful Gypsy dancers – and this O2 production also exceeded my expectations in both scope and epic proportions. The frantic hysteria of Act 4, including the Toreador’s Song, will live long in my memory.
As a delighted crowd left their seats we were all sternly warned that, ‘The O2 is a No Smoking area and patrons will be forcibly removed by staff if found smoking inside the building.’ No doubt patrons would also be flogged at whipping posts and the odd one lanced by picadors as well – just as an example to the others. I heard one member of the audience remark, “That’s a bit rich isn’t it? All night we have had to witness hussies flagrantly smoking endless cigarillos, torch lit processions brimming with flaming poi dancers and fire-eaters, and squad upon squad of chain smoking troops …. and we can’t even light up a crafty one!”
A sumptuous and hot production and a truly memorable experience.