Opera review: Bizet’s Carmen

David Freeman's classic production is well polished but lacks intimacy. THREE STARS by Sam Chandler

DIRECTOR DAVID Freeman is known for his large scale, theatrical productions, designed to wrestle opera out of the grasp of the cultural elite. His Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall is no exception. The set is interactive, and performers pass through the aisles in constant dramatic dialogue with the audience. Musical adjustments are also made: Freeman dispenses with Bizet’s French in favour of English, while the orchestra and singers are amplified across the hall via a speaker system hanging from the roof.

The result is, on the whole, a visually striking production, which is entertaining from overture to finale. But while Freeman’s objective is an honourable one, his attempts to democratise the production undermine its emotional force. The large scale “Hollywood” feel makes for maximum adrenaline, but drains Carmen of the exoticism that makes it so evocative. This is a tale of Sevillian peasant life; having the music projected through speakers, complete with reverb, strips the score of its rustic charm. It feels too polished. The listener is never transported away.

For the most part, the singers perform well. Noah Stewart is impressive as Don Jose and Carmen, played by Rachael Lloyd, is competent, although her range of tonal colour could be wider. The orchestra played accurately, though it was often too loud. As the sound is amplified from above, rather than from the singers themselves, it is sometimes difficult to identify the protagonists, especially when the stage is busy.

There is one special moment when an unamplified Don Jose re-enters the auditorium, and serenades Carmen as he wanders through one of the aisles. This is by far the most captivating number of the entire opera, and it highlights how much damage the non-directional speaker system inflicts upon the opera’s emotional depth.

Freeman’s Carmen highlights some of the pitfalls associated with attempts to popularise and demystify the art form. We are left with an exciting and entertaining production, but certainly not a moving one.