Carmen in Soho

Opera Up Close proves a size zero Carmen can still pack a punch, says Helen Wallace

Carmen in Soho
Flora McIntosh as Carmen (photos courtesy of Dominic Haddock)

Opera Up Close made its name with an award-winning Puccini La bohème at Kilburn’s Cock Tavern and has broken new ground in radical, small-scale in-yer-face productions of the classics in venues like the King’s Head. This new, streamlined Bizet Carmen is playing on a main stage, albeit the smallish Soho Theatre, for an ambitious seven-week run.

We were promised a show lasting just two hours and fifteen minutes, so cuts were brutal – much of the dialogue and the choruses  ­– but the approach flowed naturally from the resources on stage: just seven singers and four instrumentalists (violin, cello and flute ably directed from the piano by Berrak Dyer). Artistic director Robin Norton-Hale’s new version is freshly but unselfconsciously up-to-date; every word communicated. 

I have a confession: Carmen may be the most perfect opera ever written, but I always experience a sinking feeling in Act III. Here at the gypsy encampment the story sags, the chorus murmurs and poor Micaela’s cloying aria… cloys. Not here: no sooner had the fateful cards been dealt, and Micaela arrived than Escamillo and Don José were engaging in fisticuffs; Micaela delivered her missive from Mamma and suddenly we were hurtling into Act IV. Genius. The plot didn’t suffer and the momentum kept ratcheting up from that point to the bull-ring finale.