ETO has made an intelligent choice with its second touring production of the autumn 2008 season. Peter Brook's radical reworking of Carmen into a music drama, almost a chamber opera, for four singers and a few walk-on parts plays to all the company's strengths. This is Carmen stripped down to the bare essentials of the tale – raw emotion, violence, a love triangle (or quartet if we include the unfortunate Micaela, one of opera's greatest wimps) – and telling the story with great narrative clarity in eighty-five minutes of absorbing music theatre. The pared-down orchestration is a particular delight.
I saw La Tragédie de Carmen in the week that it opened in Paris, at the Bouffes du Nord, in November 1981. I saw it twice more in its original run, with a different cast each time. Peter Brook's production then went on a European tour and was subsequently made into three films, with the role of Carmen being taken by Zehava Gal, Hélène Delavault and Eva Saurova. The setting was the Bouffes du Nord itself: a shabby chic horseshoe-shaped theatre, narrow wooden bench seats, sand and mud filling the acting area and conveying the irresistible look and feel of the toreador's arena. Peter Brook exploited the genius of the place itself: the experience at the Bouffes du Nord was unforgettable.
ETO, in their production first seen at Wexford last year, have gone a slightly different route. There is a bare stage look, backed by a curving white wall with four doors in it – it could be the wall of an arena. There is a billowing white sheet, used for film projection and shadow play. There is a neon-lit bar advertising the louche premises of Lillas Pastia. There are a few props, table and chairs, a coat rack. There are sound effects of steam trains coming and going. There is lots of billowing smoke (the dry ice bill must be considerable). Don José is holed up in cheap digs by the railway tracks, re-living what has happened to him to bring him to the miserable condition in which we find him at the start of the piece. This device, telling the tale as a sort of flashback, is mirrored by the mournful solo cello refrain that starts and ends the proceedings. The stage setting also has the look and feel of a film set, with characters operating an onstage follow spot to illuminate their fellow singers – mainly Carmen herself. This is a tale within a tale.
But neither concept nor casting can work without a strong quartet of singing actors, and here ETO have excelled. As Carmen, Leah-Marian Jones exudes physicality and sings with tremendous focus – the voice is strong, perfectly centred, attractive in every register and gorgeous to hear. 'L'amour' smoulders as it should, the underlying rhythm teasing Don Jose as he falls hopelessly and helplessly in love with the blonde gypsy figure before him. The 'séguedilla' has its proper, intoxicating lilt as Jones sings of the abandoned evenings she enjoys on the premises of Lillas Pastia. And she gets stronger as the evening progresses: making her Carmen absolutely believable as the girl who will never be tamed, who will always choose death over subjugation. This is a terrific incarnation of the role, as well sung as anything I have ever heard Jones do.
Opposite her, David Curry has a fine sing as Don José. He has a natural, unforced, open sound and keeps the voice steady in the upper register. I always like a tenor who can sing high without sounding nasal, and Curry delivers here. There was a real sense of tension and electricity to his confrontations with Carmen and this gave energy to the stage action – two performers absolutely matching each other in their assumption of their respective roles. A terrific combination.
The other two singing roles are Micaela and Escamillo. As Micaela, the girl who tries with her 'remembrances of things past' to turn Don José back from the sordid world into which he is plunging ever deeper, Sinéad Campbell-Wallace sings attractively and with character but without ever making the role remotely believable: flesh and blood she certainly is not. This I feel is a weakness in the part, not in the performer, and I remember the original Micaela, Véronique Dietschy, having exactly the same effect on me. But Campbell-Wallace sings naturally, without forcing the tone, and gives a good account of herself. That brings me to the Escamillo of Nicholas Garrett, who delivers a fabulous account of the role. He is an absolutely natural high baritone, with creamy tone and a real sense of musical line: the voice is secure and carries a natural resonance that is a constant pleasure to hear. The confrontation and fight scene with Don José was a musical highlight, both men conveying the menace of the moment while treating us to some great singing, until Carmen breaks them up. Garrett also looks the part to perfection as he slowly dons his matador's outfit, a rare splash of colour in the predominantly subdued palette of shades that designer Sarah Bacon gives us.
There was a younger element to the audience at Snape on Saturday night: they were excited by what they heard and saw, and rightly so. The production generates great pace of its own as the succession of doors in the curving white wall slam shut one by one in the final confrontation between Don José and Carmen, for whom there is no escape. Prior to that we have experienced one of the clever features of this arrangement, as the music alternates between onstage speakers, a tolling piano in the pit, and the 15 strong orchestra (who play excellently throughout for their alert and watchful conductor Gareth Hancock), a device that allows the tension to be ratcheted up inexorably. It all works beautifully, in service of the drama.
The final spoken couplet, heard through a radio loudspeaker and rounding off the tale, was not in the original production and I am not sure that it is absolutely necessary. Peter Brook had his Carmen and Don José merely walk round the arena until they reached a spot where she said 'C'est ici'. Both characters then knelt side by side for a moment, until Don José knifed her and she sprawled into the sand. But given the context of this adaptation of Brook's work, I am certainly not going to quibble about the way this version of Carmen's tragedy is rounded off.
In short, this is a great, concentrated and passionate piece of music theatre, extremely well executed by an ETO at its best and with some knockout performances. See it if you can, in Buxton, Tunbridge Wells or Cambridge before the run ends.