If you’re looking for a cultural experience in London, then it’s hard to beat the visually spectacular Carmen at the Royal Opera House directed by Barrie Kosky.
Carmen is such an iconic piece of opera, that the challenge is primarily to find a fresh way of looking at it and presenting it, and on that front Kosky undeniably delivers. Kosky plays up the Almodovarean possibilities for melodrama in this tale of passion, smuggling, and bullfighting amidst the heat of southern Spain.
In the role of Carmen, Gaëlle Arquez brings some real depth to a challenging character – embodying her strength, her vulnerability, her mischievous sense of humour, and her passion.
Kosky focuses this production on visual impact. The stage is dominated by Odessa-like steps, but Kosky uses the steps in a similar way that Pina Bausch used the volcanic mountain of a set that Peter Pabst created for her work Masurca Fogo – maximising the cinematic possibilities of the stage. It’s a staging device that we’ve seen Kosky use before in his production of Handel’s Saul at Glyndebourne, the stage is effectively shallower, bringing all of the action closer to the audience.
It’s a contemporary approach to a classic opera, and it feels surprisingly fresh and current.
I caught up with Alan Barnes, the Revival Director of this production, for a behind-the-scenes look at the opera.
First performed in 1875, why do you think Carmen is an opera that has stood the test of time?
Because of all the great music that’s within it – the Habanera and the Carmen theme is done so much, even in advertisements, it’s a very well known piece. Also, I think everybody likes the story of a woman that can get what she wants on her own terms – in this way that Kosky tells it, it’s so refreshing to see, and hear.
Carmen has always been an opera that breaks conventions, but this production from Kosky takes things to a different level. Do you feel that the visual impact of this production helps connect with younger audiences?
I think this is a great gateway opera, especially this version with the dance that’s intertwined within it. Sometimes your eye needs a rest, and your ears need a rest, so the dance in this production gives you that – you have the choice of just watching without hearing a voice or just listening to the music.
The schools matinee showed us that it’s a hit amongst the young ones – they got into the sheer enjoyment of clapping along to the music, and laughing when something was funny or when the dancers told a different story to what was being shown on the surtitles.
This is a production that’s been staged a number of times now, as Revival Director have you had to make any adjustments to bring Kosky’s vision to the stage for this run?
Yes – not all Carmens are the same, so things are definitely adjusted to the different casts. It’s great when the cast are willing to take in the information and use it and dig into this version, because they may have done another version and feel that that last version was the be all end all version, or that there is only one version.
The wardrobe design for this production introduces us to Carmen as an almost androgynous figure. What’s your take on this play on gender in this production?
I don’t see her as androgynous at all, I feel that she’s quite feminine in all of her costumes. The matador costume just shows how she is a strong woman – I didn’t feel or see it as a play on genders.
The music of Bizet is one of the strengths of this opera. Is there a particular stand out moment musically in this production that is a highlight for you?
There are lots of beautiful moments in this piece that makes me swoon , Habanera, the sequedilla, and some of the music before the final duet. Plus, I love the cymbals at the beginning – that’s one of my highlights.
What do you hope that audiences feel when watching this production of Carmen?
I hope that they leave with the understanding that opera is for everyone, and that it’s a part of human nature to actually have problems with people in real life. That they feel that you can always learn from seeing something new in your life, and to be open to things that aren’t the same all the time.