Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh – until 27 February 2016
Guest reviewer: Catriona Graham
For their first production in the Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh Studio Opera set Bizet’s opera of love, lust and death during the Spanish Civil War.
In case of doubt, there is a large portrait of General Franco at the side of the stage. His soldiers are occupying Seville and the girls in the cigarette factory support the Republic. From the start, the 38-strong cast seize the challenge and live up to the ambition. Anna Keenan’s Carmen, a sulky Amy Winehouse rather than sultry gypsy temptress, knifes another girl and is arrested.
She seduces the soldier Don Jose into freeing her on the way to prison and escapes to join the Republicans. As a result, Don Jose is imprisoned. On his release he joins Carmen but by then she has met bullfighter Escamillo…
Keenan has a voice like chocolate and a petted lip, coming across less as a victim than play-acting the femme fatale, maybe not appreciating the danger till it is too late. In contrast, Monica Toll is a poignant Micaela: the straightforward girl-next-door who brings messages to Don Jose from his mother.
In a powerful performance, Robert Forrest’s Don Jose, initially a quiet and gauche country-boy, grows in stature to the man goaded to murdering his love at the end. His is a strong tenor voice, well-suited to the duets with Keenan and Toll and no-one could doubt the sincerity of his feelings.
Don Jose’s rival for Carmen’s affections certainly has the voice for Escamillo. Although Jonathan Kennedy is not as dashing as one imagines a toreador, his fight with Don Jose over Carmen is effectively choreographed as a bullfight.
Torreador. Photo: Phoebe Campbell-Harris
Frasquita and Mercedes (Claire Thompson and Theodora Burrows) are fair-weather friends of Carmen – in the Card Trio, they are in lively conversation with the other women, while a solitary Carmen lays out the cards foretelling her fate.
Thompson has delicious high notes which contrast well with the rich tones of Keenan. Patrick Dodd (El Dancaire) and Sam Jenkins (El Remendado) look clean-cut for smugglers, but their exuberance shines in the quintet with Carmen, Frasquita and Mercedes.
Sarah Brown’s set is simple – tables and chairs, with a couple of double archways at the back – and director Brock Roberts uses the space intelligently. With the orchestra to one side of the audience, the front of the stage and the aisle is used for crowd scenes – throwing !Viva la republica! flyers, selling fruit and drinks before the corrida. Irrepressible urchins cheekily mimic the parading soldiers. The spirited chorus is dressed by Laura Loszak in an eclectic mix of 1930s style, rather than overt Spanishry. Only Carmen dons a flamenco dress, for the corrida.
The orchestral playing under William Conway is excellent, with wobbles only on a couple of exposed brass entries. The string-playing, in particular, is superb and any initial doubts about the balance with the soloists are confounded. In a nice touch, dancers Adam Makepeace and Caili Cross anticipate the action during the overture and entr’actes.
Running time 2 hrs 40 mins (including one interval)
Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, Edinburgh EH8 9SU
Tuesday 23/Wednesday 24, Friday 26/Saturday 27 February 2016
Concert performance of Highlights from Carmen: Sat 27, 2pm.
Tickets from Sparkseat ticketing website: www.sparkseat.com
Edinburgh Studio Opera website: http://www.edinburghstudioopera.org/