Pop-Up Opera’s Thought-Provoking Approach to La Tragédie de Carmen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bizet/Brook, La Tragédie de Carmen: Soloists of Pop-Up Opera / Berrak Dyer (musical director). Asylum Chapel, Peckham, London, 25.9.2018. (MB)

Pop-Up Opera’s La Tragédie de Carmen (c) Chloe Latchmore


Carmen – Chloe Latchmore
Don José – Satriya Krisna
Micaëla – Alice Privett
Escamillo – James Corrigan


Director – John Wilkie
Designs – Anna Bonomelli
Movement – Mark Ruddick

Few companies are so worthy of our support than Pop-Up Opera. Last time I reviewed one of their performances, they were giving a free-of-charge Mozart double-bill the morning after their props and equipment had been stolen from a van. Now they are offering Peter Brook’s barebones version of Carmen, as arranged by him, Marius Constant, and Jean-Claude Carrière. Not that director John Wilkie and his team are content to offer that ‘straight’; they approach it with the imagination and interrogation one would expect, if not always receive, of any repertoire work. There are losses, of course, and I am not entirely convinced that the updating to 1939 at the close of the Spanish Civil War fits quite so well with Brook’s version. Not only, however, has it made me think – and continue to think; there were on this first night, in Peckham’s wonderful Asylum Chapel, some fine performances to enjoy irrespective of such questions.

We have no chorus, just four principals; we have no orchestra, just a piano. The desire to recapture something of the work’s original opéra comique intimacy is a long-held one, quite valid. Even for the vast space of Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus, Simon Rattle recently spoke and worked in such terms, albeit with decidedly mixed results. At any rate, surely no one would really wish to substitute those dreadful recitatives for the dialogue now. Brook’s determination to return to Mérimée is furthered – trumped? – here by the staging. At the dawn of Franco’s fascist new world, Don José is a disgraced, traumatised soldier, blood on his mind and on his hands. Having killed the cabaret performer Carmen on the street, having thus accomplished something similar to what his former Nationalist forces have done to the country as a whole, he now relives the experience in a series of flash backs. Much is cut; the whole performance lasts for eighty minutes. Film projections of war and its aftermath essentially take the place of the chorus, so that a sense of the social is retained. We gain perhaps an even stronger sense of Fate, not only from Don José standpoint but also from the cards’ foretelling.

Carmen is thus not decentred, as one might have expected; even in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s brilliant rethinking for Aix, her initial decentring paradoxically gave new birth to as character rather than icon. She is rarely off stage and becomes perhaps more than ever a progenitor of that ultimate operatic femme fatale, Berg’s Lulu. Problems persist: is she merely a projection of male violence? Yet our sympathy is engaged, which is surely the crucial thing.

Chloe Latchmore’s performance here proved quite mesmerising, whether in vocal terms or stage-presence. Satriya Krisna, Alice Privett, and James Corrigan all proved deeply impressive, in both ‘traditional’ and ‘reimagined’ fashion. To be more than a caricature, Escamillo needs something. Here his return to war and parallel trauma certainly offered food for thought. Berrak Dyer’s musical direction from the piano proved duly heroic, offering a window onto what we might have heard, what we thought we remembered, as well as what we actually did. Which, in a way, is what La Tragédie de Carmen, both ‘in itself’ and in this further reinvention sought also to do.

Mark Berry

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