REVIEW: Welsh National Opera’s ‘Carmen’, Birmingham Hippodrome

‘The bullring is crowded’ as audiences flock to the Birmingham Hippodrome to see the Welsh National Opera’s acclaimed production of ‘Carmen’. Set in 1970s South America, Jo Davies’ production sees a tense, thrilling outpouring of emotion set to Bizet’s iconic and alluring score. 

Dangerous and beautiful, ‘Carmen’ is an intoxicating opera that seduces the senses and enchants the soul with its blazing, passionate portrayal of the destructive nature of desire.

The story follows seductress and femme fatale Carmen and solider Don José, whose love affair erupts into an explosion of obsessive jealousy that sparks a bitter tragedy culminating with a chilling finale. 

The production begins in an army barracks, during the time in between the changing of the guard. Bored, the soldiers lounge around, watching the world go by. When a young girl passes, they all stand and press themselves against the metal fencing, leering, lecherous, lascivious. This is an intensely masculine-dominated environment, and the behaviour of these inappropriate men seems commonplace. 

When the changing of the guard takes place, we see just how regimented and disciplined the soldiers can be, with their shoulders back, arms straight, and chests out. Boredom brought on by a lack of purpose during times of peace seems to inflame them, to the point where their behaviour transcends what is professional.

The soldiers are disturbed by the arrival of a group of children, each of whom carries a toy gun or water pistol. The unnerving naturalness and of the children with these toy weapons, as they ‘fire’ at the soldiers’, hints at a divide between soldier and civvy, one that climaxes with an uproar rising to a frenzy as, towards the end of the production, the people revolt against army and state, raising the banner for freedom and liberty.

When the working women return home from the factory, they get an audience from the men, soldiers and civilians alike, all of whom surround the women, flattering them with their empty, airy  words, all in nothing but smoke, as the women tease and flirt. 

When Carmen arrives, overalls around her waist and tattoos on show, the men are driven wild, all of them throwing themselves at her. Virginie Verrez is captivating in the role, and when she sings, during a magnificently performed Habanera, that love is a bird that can’t be tamed, one can’t help but feel that this metaphor is appropriate for her also. There is a wildness to her, that distinguishes her from the other women, as she playfully and mischievously teases the men around her.

Don José is the only man that does not appear to be paying Carmen any attention and so, possibly as a result, she sets her sights on him. We later learn they have had a past, and she had given him a flower that he kept on his person, close to his heart, at all times. The two begin a love affair, claiming to be madly in love with each other. When the bugles of retreat blow, and José  must return to the barracks for a roll call, Carmen begs him to run away with her. When he is found amongst Carmen’s friends and cast out by the army, José becomes an outlaw, and is forced to live a gypsy lifestyle with Carmen. Beginning to grow bored of him (her affairs usually last no more than 6 months, we are told), Carmen declares of her growing love for the toreador Escamillo.

With much of the action in the second half revolving around a bull fight, the later scenes in the opera are accompanied with bullfighting imagery. Though she does indeed possess certain ‘bullish’ qualities herself – feisty, fierce, fiery and free-thinking – Carmen is, in many ways, like a toreador, holding out a red flag that bullish men charge at, only for her to whip it aside at the last second and dodge their advances. She tempts them, she draws them in, she excites them, and as they run towards her, she swerves, evading them. ‘Carmen will never give in. she will live free and she will die free’.

Burning, maddened, feverish, this gritty, earthy opera sees red in its visceral exploration of death, desire and destruction.



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