[Review:] CARMEN, Founders' Hall, London.
Opera Loki develops its performances with the aim of creating a space for newcomer theatregoers and artists alike, translating librettos into English for accessibility and for vacancies for first-time creatives. This is a wonderful and commendable initiative, and the results of this collaboration are palpable and clear. Directed by Jane Gray, with musical direction by Elspeth Wilkes, Opera Loki present Carmen – on this night, at the Founders’ Hall in Chelsea, London.
In this review, I will not comment on the governing plot, narrative or themes of the original libretto itself, given that this is a revival. Instead, I will analyse Opera Loki’s unique interpretation. And I shall start with the written text. Carmen, originally written in French by Georges Bizet, has been translated here by Christopher Cowell. The aim of making this text accessible has certainly been met by Cowell. Language is notably not complex but is also by no means oversimplified. Cowell retains the poeticism and lyricality of this libretto incredibly well, and translations are appropriate and clear. Cowell demonstrates in this translation a great sense of literary awareness and effect.
However, translations do not contain any unique elements and, instead, translate the original libretto itself; that is to say that Gray’s setting this opera in ‘the hot and dangerous American/Mexican border in the 1990s’, as per an official synopsis, is not accounted for here. But then, I am not convinced that the location in which Gray’s opera is set is communicated well at all anywhere within this performance, in fact. There is nothing particularly American-Mexican about this performance, and the original setting of Spain could easily be misidentified within it. Gray does succeed in modernising the aesthetic of this play to some degree, however, with costumes (designed by Carolyn Bear) being relative to the 90s, but context remains entirely lost.
This official synopsis also states that ‘partying with drug lords is the norm [… and] it is difficult for young women to earn enough money to live and to find genuine love’. The status and title of these ‘drug lords’ are completely underplayed. Only one reference is made to the contraband being smuggled, and this does not scream drugs; it screams merely contraband goods. These characters remain simply smugglers, the only goods we actually get a glimpse of being, what appears to be, oranges. Early into the second act, before the bullfighting ensues, the performers reorganise the set [more on this below], passing around its crates and repositioning them. I imagine that these crates are supposed to be the goods…so, why are they empty? I would recommend these crates be filled with [what would appear to be] the very drugs these lords are selling; the oranges should remain included, for a superficial layer of them should be kept atop the crates to hide the drugs. This is all that was needed for us to understand the nature of these goods, and I am rather irked that something as basic as this, at the very least, was not considered.
In Gray’s version, there is also no sense whatsoever of struggle, especially economic, amongst the women, other than that they are constantly preyed upon by the male characters. However, even this is something that they seem to rather enjoy, first powerful in their siren-like refusals and then wilfully and entirely seductive and sexually forward. In fact, the overt sexuality that is offered to us is, in all, comedic and somewhat caricatural, from Frasquita (Erin Alexander) placing her Toreador flag between her breasts to wiggle them from left to right, to Mercedes’s (Hannah Crerar) overdramatic dumbfoundedness to have received a kiss from Escamillo (Thomas Isherwood). This negates any discomfort, pity or reproach in our reading of these characters.
In these ways, this performance is entirely misguided, its theory, vision and aims not quite matching up with what is presented to us on stage. Even the mere employment of the adjective ‘hot’ in this synopsis feels like an emotive description aiming to grab an audience’s initial attention and coax them to purchase a ticket. I see no references to climate past the female performers’ aforementioned costumes (sandals, short shorts and revealing tops, mostly), and this could easily be construed as merely modern coquettish attire. These items that demonstrate a lack of creative and conceptual awareness are fundamental to my rating of this performance.
The set design (also by Bear) for this performance, I must admit, is equally underwhelming, lacking dynamism, dimension, visual appeal, uniqueness and character. There is no emulation in this design of theme and symbolism, and this is disappointing, particularly with choreography and movement being so static, as I will detail below, intensifying this lack of visual appeal. I would recommend a few more set changes, but these should function as part of the action, not as distracting character-losing interludes. Perhaps this concept of the smugglers could be employed here, with their movements and dealings prompting them to reorganise the set – in a vein similar to the aforementioned set change early into the second act, but far better executed. I must say that this set change, the only one, was rather understated and time-consuming, as well as devoid of creativity and clarity. Perhaps this unimpressive set was a matter of funding, but I am not so convinced.
On to the talent. These opera singers have wonderful vocal ability, and we are presented an excellent vocal range, overall. Most impressive, forte segments and crescendoes are handled beautifully and with great care, such as with the Habanera. Superb musical direction by Wilkes. I cannot significantly fault these performers whatsoever on their singing skill, except for maybe in regard to diction, which is perfect almost throughout but must be better refined in a few areas.
Crerar and Alexander make for a hilarious duo. They have exemplary expressivity and vitality, remaining clear on their actions and character intents. Constantly reacting to and engaged in what is happening around them, confident in physicality and overall portrayal, the two have wonderful stage presence. Great and engaging performers. Alice Usher (playing Michaela) demonstrates good characterisation, and her capability as an opera singer is certainly proven in this performance. I would just urge that she remember that she is performing during the scene wherein she hides from the other, brawling characters, behind the structure Upstage Right. Reactivity here is nonexistent. Whilst on the topic of her character, however, I should also point out the incongruity of her costume. This must be addressed.
Shakira Tsindos (playing Carmen) has great command of her role and performs both the cockiness and majesty of her character well. Her singing is faultless, but corporeal expressivity in song is notably lacking quite frequently, and this does intensify as the performance progresses. Certainly very talented and the best suited for this particular role out of the cast, I would just like to see slightly more conviction from her.
Isherwood has by far the most stage presence, assuming the arrogance and ostentation of his character incredibly well. I would like to see a vast amount more transformativity, however, especially with how easy it is for him to come out of character, as I shall elaborate below. But Isherwood remains wonderfully expressive, proves his vitality and energy, and possesses great vocal abilities. Tim Bagley (playing Zuniga and Dancairo) and Lars Fischer (playing Morales and Remendado) are, throughout, a great duo, and their harmonies are well orchestrated. I would just have Bagley borrow some of Fischer’s expressivity and would urge more force in singing from Fischer, given that he sometimes gets lost under Bagley’s sheer volume. Overall, adequate performers. I must say, however, that their portrayal of the soldiers at the very beginning was far more impressive and promising than their overall performance. When I compare this to what is presented henceforward, I fail to comprehend where such high energy and excellent conviction went.
Unfortunately, Andrew Rawlings (playing Don José) was suffering from pharyngitis when I saw the performance, and so he was not able to sing. Instead, he mimed his action and lip-synced, with Cameron Rolls as his cover. I understand that this was perhaps a last-minute decision, but I would not have considered Rolls as the best candidate for this. Rolls has mediocre singing ability, unfortunately, and struggles intensely to hit those desired higher notes. I would source a different performer for this role. Evidently, I cannot comment on Rawlings’s singing, but as for characterisation, this was certainly lacking, especially in the intenser scenes, such as those wherein he is threatening other characters with his [oddly designed] blade. Rawlings certainly fails to communicate his characters’ identity, with inadequate character profiling.
Moving on to movement and choreography. I must note that movement in the more impassioned scenes is very repetitive. The threat of the knife, when I consider the lack of expressivity from Rawlings, and with Tsindos’s expressivity being understated here, and the lack of variation in overall movement [upon which I shall elaborate below], is minimal, and this should be addressed. We should see expansion and stillness in the eye, tension across the body, etc. to communicate his rage, but we simply do not. This lack of physical tension, vigour and energy in movements makes for a particularly awkward watch when Tsindos ‘struggles’ free of his featherlight clutches, him stopping her in her tracks as she tries to run away, or during his [unfortunately, I must say rather pathetic] fight with Isherwood.
In fact, this lack of vigour persists throughout this performance, particularly with the male performers, barring Isherwood. Whilst I emphasise that all performers have commendable talent when it comes to singing, I must admit that physicality, expressivity and transformativity are in urgent need of development and refinement, overall. As I have already written, death scenes, fight scenes, scenes of violence, these are understated and far too calmly presented. There are also far too many moments of stasis, and, altogether, scenes are far too similar, usually comprising a pair of performers on each side of the stage performing minor interactions or interactions of a sexual nature. This lack of variation is most stunting and allows for a limited aesthetic and sense of dynamism. This is this performance’s greatest downfall.
I mentioned the sexual interactions between the performers, and these are often executed by the coquettish duo, Crera and Alexander. These are handled and structured most comedically, but sexual motifs and the general theme of sexuality are permitted to peak far too early, meaning that further sexual displays and interactions between the characters after Tsindos’s rendition of Cowell’s translation of the Harbera feel repetitive and bland.
Finally, some comments on general blocking. The decision to have performers walk through the audience is most needless, unnatural and distracting, especially given that the performers’ expressions and movements here can only be seen by an incredibly minute number of audience members. This adds no effect whatsoever and does not progress the action at all; in fact, it can only subtract from it. This forces audience members to be aware of one another, and not lost in the performance’s illusion, as they turn their heads back to get a better look at the oncoming actors far in the distance behind them. It also allows for sheer disorder, as was the case when an audience member wanted to visit the lavatory just as Isherwood was making his next entrance. I should also note here that this prompted Isherwood not to ignore the audience member waiting at the edge of the aisle for him to pass — as he should have done! — but to come out of character, step back to make room, and gesture with a smile and a minor utterance that it was OK for the audience member to pass. No! Completely unprofessional and illusion-shattering. Stay in character! The audience, in performances like this, do not exist; you cannot see them, you do not address them, you do not interact.
On the topic of walking through the audience, I must note that the beginning of the second act is most peculiar to me. It starts with the performers on stage, dimly silhouetted in still poses. After an intermezzo, the performers walk back through the audience and leave the stage, only to re-enter together almost immediately through the audience again. This is clumsy, disordered and distracting. Being our first impression back from the interval, this needs to be urgently readdressed. The initial tableau vivant implies that the performers will soon break into acton; when this is not the case, it allows for a sense of the underwhelming. Entering and exiting the stage repeatedly in such a short amount of time is simply chaotic and confusing. There is no reason this intermezzo could not be performed without the accompaniment of actors on stage, especially given that this tableau vivant does not progress our understanding of the performance or its narrative whatsoever. Lighting design (by Will White) here further complicates matters, with a dim wash, then a blackout, then intense washes again, but I must put this down to the disorganised concept of this intro itself, not down to White’s creative abilities. Where lighting is concerned, however, I also fail to understand why the aisle was not lit, given that the entrances of these characters are so important and so forcefully marked – notably, Isherwood’s entrance is most understated as he sluggishly emerges from the dark, stopping religiously to take in his surroundings.
I must stress that better and more careful thought should be given to topography. The audience is far too crammed in together, and the sheer length of the house means that having only two levels of platforms for the staging is a fallible decision. Especially in scenes wherein action takes place chiefly upon the floor, and even in major scenes such as Carmen’s death scene, anyone past the fourth row will get a lovely view of the back of the heads of the audience members in front and of nothing more. This is very poorly conceived. Another tier should be added to the stage, and this death scene, in particular, should take place on, at least, what is currently the highest tier.
My very last criticism: when actors stand in the corridors behind the audience, after having walked through them so disruptively, they must remain silent and inconspicuous. Do not interact with or talk amongst each other. This is most distracting and, again, illusion-shattering.
Overall, an adequate performance but one that certainly needs drastic refinement insofar as aesthetics, dynamism and topography. With beautifully played music and wonderful vocal talent, this performance has great potential and promise but is in need of sharper direction and variation.