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Rating: ****

The Coliseum, London

Summary: Vibrant and passionate interpretation of this Operatic masterpiece

Containing some of the most beautiful and instantly recognisable music, Carmen is arguably the most popular opera in the world. Productions and adaptations have been plentiful and varied with the action taking place everywhere from Post-war USA to the townships of Johannesburg.

In this latest production (performed for the first time in the UK) director Calixto Bieto returns the story to its native Spain but advances the time to an undetermined post-war era.

The story focuses on a love triangle centred around Carmen (Ruxandra Donose), a free spirited, sexually adventurous gypsy woman who is used to using her body and sexuality to get her way. This becomes evident as she attempts to avoid jail by seducing Jose (Adam Diegel) a local army corporal who falls completely and utterly in love with her.

Into this enters Escamillo (Leigh Melrose) a bullfighter and local celebrity, who has also fallen for Carmen’s charms and Michaela (Elizabeth Llewellyn), a young woman in love with Jose.

When Carmen was originally performed, it scandalised audiences with its raw depiction of lust amongst Seville’s underclass. In this latest interpretation Bieito presents the story closer to Bizet’s original conception than almost any other production. It’s base and raw. The soldiers lustful desires and the flirtatious gypsy seductions make it seem like a Friday night outside a suburban nightclub.

There’s an abundance of thrusting hips, gyrating waists and bare torsos – there’s even a naked man dancing around. Its staged on a deceptively simple, but hugely evocative set which mirrors perfectly the intimacy or grandeur of the action upon it.

There’s a huge cast of about 70 performers, including 20 children, that bring a real energy to the crowd scenes and Bieito manages to intricately depict the excitement, chaos, and danger that comes from group experiences.

Moreover, Bieito brings out a real sense of humor in the work: Carmen’s two friends, Frasquita (Rhian Lois) and Mercedes (Madeleine Shaw), become almost jesters, but in a way that make the relationship between the three women all the more believable.

The cast deal with the vocal and physical challenges remarkably well. Donose initially appears unconventional as Carmen but she brings a deliberate cunning and maturity to the role of the seductress. Diegel switches well between the doe-eyed then forlorn lover. Melrose underwhelms as Escamillo, neither his vocal or hysical performance seeming to match up to the expectations of the role. But Llewellyn really shines as Michaela, bringing a vocally tender and beautiful performance.

If there is a criticism of this production it would be that the narrative, at times, falters. There’s little understanding of how Jose becomes so besotted with Carmen and, when Escamillo joins, theres an ambiguity about his relationship with Carmen too that leaves you wondering how he could fall for this woman so easily.

This production has proven to be hugely popular in the US and around Europe, and its easy to see why. It’s an emotionally exposed and physically dramatic production that makes Carmen relavent for today without detracting from the source. Its a vibrant and stimulating interpretation of a glorious opera.

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