Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

three stars

BEFORE a note of the famous overture is played, we hear the voice of Don Jose: “Arrest me, take me away, I killed her.” Spoiler alert!

Of course, no-one expects the story of an opera to end well for the woman in the title, especially this one, but John Fulljames’s new Scottish Opera staging plays all its cards long before Carmen sees her fate in them in Act Three.

The story is told in flashback from the interrogation room where Jose is being grilled by an “Investigator”, played by (coincidentally-named) actor Carmen Pieraccini, a non-singing role Georges Bizet and his librettists did not include in the cast. The director’s intention is to present a more nuanced and positive view of a determinedly independent woman – but that comes at a hefty price.

Singing Jose’s jilted sweetheart Micaela can sometimes seem the thankless role in Carmen – although Hye-Youn Lee gives one of the best vocal performances in this cast – but Fulljames hands Pieraccini a worse job, on stage for virtually the whole show, mostly as an observer and twice given a very irritating fidget ball to play with to give her something to do. Like Micaela’s inhaler (no, really), it is a fussy detail the production could do without. And quite what a Glasgow-accented detective is doing in 1970s Seville is never explained.

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That period setting, post-Franco and pre-democracy in Spain, works well otherwise, not just in the costumes (of the smugglers in particular) and the gadgets (Jose’s confession is being cassette-taped) but in the casual misogyny of the soldiers in Act One. Sarah Beaton’s articulated box set often serves chiefly as a screen for Will Duke’s projections – skilful stuff, but occasionally another overcooked distraction. The chorus sings well throughout and, after some odd choreography early on, moves the narrative on briskly when it can, with some notable step-out performances in the smaller roles.

Scottish Opera’s skill in casting is evident once more in the singing of the male principals, Alok Kumar (Jose), Thomas D Hopkinson (Zuniga), and Philip Rhodes (Escamillo) – the first two making their company debut – and Justina Gringyte is a compelling Carmen, vocally and physically, even if her hit songs are heard in shorter versions. The Lithuanian mezzo’s diction is a problem, though, her approach to singing Christopher Cowell’s English translation being to omit most of the consonants, even in “Tra La La”.

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The musical language of the show is thankfully in safer hands, conductor Dane Lam – who takes up the enviable position of Music Director of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra this summer – revelling in all the details of Bizet’s glorious orchestration and the orchestra delivering in spades, both soloists and ensemble.

Further performances to Saturday May 20 in Glasgow, then touring to Inverness, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.