This week, the Scottish Opera’s production of Bizet’s opera Carmen arrived at the Festival Theatre. First performed in 1875 Carmen was poorly received during its debut run, partly due to its controversial main characters which scandalized its original audiences. However after an extremely successful run in Venice the following year it went on to become the internationally acclaimed opera it is today. Carmen tells a story of love and jealousy following the gypsy Carmen and her obsessed lover Don José. The beloved musical score evokes the emotions of the character with the skill that Bizet is now renowned for.
The show begins with the orchestra tuning their instruments, ready to start the overture when the conductor arrives. The curtain is not raised, the cast are not on stage, the emphasis on the fact the production is as focused on the music as it is the story. The overture is grand and powerful, and the audience relaxes into the music, preparing for the curtain to rise and Carmen to begin. This is a clever idea as the Scottish Opera perfectly creates the suspense needed to then launch into a very energetic and lively show.
The cast is extremely talented with stand-out performances from Justina Gringyte (Carmen) and Noah Stewart (Don José). Both performers have played these primary roles before, although it is their debut with the Scottish Opera. This experience clearly shows through their confidence with their characters. Gringyte takes Carmen on a journey from brash sexual confidence to courage when facing inevitable, tragic, death. This production shows Carmen as a flawed character, responsible for her actions, yet manages to ensure the audience is involved and sympathising with her story. Stewart’s Don José is equally well done. His performance shows real talent; a quiet and intense corporal transitioning into a fiery scorned, and jealous, lover in the second half. Together they make a wonderful pairing that is a delight to watch, but painful in the extreme when this moves to tragedy.
Revival director Benjamin Davis provides a strong steady hand with his direction of this production. The child chorus proves a wonderful addition. Bursting on in the first act to usher the changing of the guard, then, in the second act, arriving to celebrate the procession of the famous matador Escamillo, alongside the professional chorus. Roland Wood must also be commended for his part as Escamillo (Carmen’s last lover and subject of Don José’s envy). He buoys the cast with masculinity and an extravagance that contrasts starkly and brilliantly with Stewart’s subdued José.
You will be surprised by how much of the music you know and recognise, as well as how much you will emerge singing to yourself. Leaving the theatre your head rings with these unforgettable songs. Overall, this is a very enjoyable production and a fantastic introduction to the world of Opera. Sung in French but subtitled in English, it is a wonderful way to appreciate both the story and the beauty of Bizet’s composition. Carmen is running until the 14th of November at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh.