La tragédie de Carmen was a captivating evening of entertaining music theatre at Buxton

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bizet, La tragédie de Carmen (after Carmen by Bizet and Mérimée. Reimagined by Peter Brook using libretto by Jean-Claude Carrière and music score by Marius Constant): Soloists, Northern Chamber Orchestra / Iwan Davies (conductor). Buxton International Festival, Derbyshire, 9.7.2024. (MC)

Niamh O’Sullivan (Carmen) and Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Don José) © Genevieve Girling

Bizet’s much loved French opera the iconic Carmen in four acts was first performed by the Opéra-Comique, Paris in 1875. The libretto to Bizet’s Carmen was written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on the novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée. Over a century later in 1981 La tragédie de Carmen was first staged at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris a reimagining by theatre director Peter Brook of Bizet’s opera Carmen.

Controversy met the premiere of Brook’s adaptation which is not surprising given the popularity of Carmen with audiences; it is regularly one of the top three operas in terms of most performed. Having seen the opera Carmen become increasingly inflated in size, almost like Hollywood musicals, Brook had seen the need for his La tragédie de Carmen to be truer to the original novella titled Carmen (1845) by French writer Prosper Mérimée on which it was based. With his adaptation La tragédie de Carmen Brook shortens and slims every aspect down, it goes to the heart of the score concentrating more on the grittier and darker aspects of Mérimée’s novella highlighting the heartbreak, jealousy, obsession and murder. Now only four characters have singing roles the courageous Carmen, Don José, Escamillo and Micaëla. Of the speakers Lillas Pastia becomes a chatterbox, there is a fleeting appearance by military officer Zuniga and Carmen’s husband Garcia is a new character introduced. The orchestra has been reduced here to fifteen players, there is no need for a choir as the choruses have been cut and comedic features have been deleted.

Stage director Katharina Kastening was in her element with La tragédie de Carmen producing a fast-moving, intimately scaled version of music theatre. Bettina John, set and costume designer, dominated the stage with a large half-pyramid shaped wooden construction built out of steps. In the manner of a 3D puzzle the structure itself was in moveable parts that could be dismantled to form smaller structures such as a serving flap to Lillas Pastia’s bar and a small prison cell. John’s costumes were of a contemporary design with Carmen having a clothes rail of several dresses with styles ranging from the temptress to the plain. The motif ‘Femme Fatale’ was regularly seen on a rectangular wooden poster board, both on the floor and elevated and sometimes kept out of sight behind the top of the stage. Curiously the characters not performing were sat inside the stage at the sides and staring ahead.

[l-r] Cameron Cook (Zuniga), Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Don José), Niamh O’Sullivan (Carmen) and Steffan Lloyd Owen (Escamillo) © Genevieve Girling

Most audience eyes were fixed onto Niamh O’Sullivan, the Irish mezzo-soprano in the title role. No stranger to Bizet’s Carmen, O’Sullivan has clearly adapted quickly to Peter Brook’s version. I saw O’Sullivan’s Carmen as a confusing character who flirts with danger both emotionally and physically, her flirtatiousness is a major vulnerability that results in the rejected Don José strangling her. Surely, we will all have our own takes on Carmen’s character. It was Micaëla who provided the best description of Carmen, singing ‘She is both dangerous and beautiful’. O’Sullivan demonstrated her voice was up to the task especially Carmen’s arias ‘Seguidilla di Carmen’ and her provocative ‘Habanera’ all effectively done and sung with convincing passion.

Tenor Elgan Llŷr Thomas stood out for his acting as soldier Don José who looked casual in jeans and leather jacket yet was a troubled soul. José’s love for Carmen was there for all to see, yet he found it difficult to understand her wiles. The Welsh tenor’s rendition of the lyrical ‘Flower Song’ conveyed a pleasing degree of tenderness as he sang of his love for Carmen.

Clearly enjoying her role Erin Rossington was a convincing Micaëla, the naive village girl in love with Don José. Dressed in a vivid red dress the Welsh soprano made a terrific job of Micaëla’s moving early duet with Don José, projecting her voice strongly and with pleasing clarity.

Steffan Lloyd Owen had the role of Escamillo, not the largest role but an important one. Racked with self-doubt and anxiety Escamillo was not the flamboyant showman he pretended to be in his profession as a Toreador. Always an audience favourite the Welsh baritone gave a rousing rendition of Escamillo’s ‘Toreador’s Song’. My only reservation was the lack of a traditional outfit for Escamillo befitting a toreador. The red sash he wore for the bullfight just didn’t do it for me.

A versatile actor Cameron Cook was the narrator and played the parts of Zuniga, Lillas Pastia and Garcia. Clearly a skilled quick-change artist Cook was capable of changing character swiftly. Under conductor Iwan Davies the members of the Northern Chamber Orchestra played well, and any early intonation issues were soon ironed out.

Bizet’s Carmen is an opera I have seen many times, and this was my first La tragédie de Carmen and I loved it as did my friends and several other audience members I spoke to. It doesn’t replace Carmen but it is strong enough to stand alongside it. At Buxton Opera House Katharina Kasten’s La tragédie de Carmen was a captivating evening of entertaining music theatre.

Michael Cookson

Stage director – Katharina Kastening
Set and Costume designer – Bettina John
Lighting designer – D. M. Wood

Niamh O’Sullivan – Carmen
Elgan Llŷr Thomas – Don José
Steffan Lloyd Owen – Escamillo
Erin Rossington – Micaëla
Cameron Cook – Active Narrator / Zuniga / Lillas Pastia / Garcia

Leave a Comment