Carmen

Wed 29th February – Sat 3rd March 2012

reviews

Rebecca Caseby

at 01:37 on 1st Mar 2012

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Bristol Theatre Review promised a “bold reinterpretation” of Bizet’s original opera ‘Carmen’ and the Bristol University Operatic Society did not disappoint. Despite setting the story a century after the original, along with changes to names and settings, the writers remained true to the fundamental story. Young Mister Joe, passionately played by Julian Issa, falls in love with cabaret dancer Carmen (Octavia Serrano). A love triangle soon forms with the addition of baseball star Oscar Miller (Peter Stuart), with fatal consequences. Instead of a classic rendition of the Spanish opera, within minutes the stage was filled with fur coats and three-piece suits and suddenly we were transported into 1920s New York. After the recent Oscar success of ‘The Artist’, it’s not surprising that ‘20s America is currently in vogue.

‘Carmen’ opened with an older, convincingly jaded Mister Joe (Tom Brandhorst) retrospectively narrating the tale of his time in New York. Along with the heartfelt delivery of his co-written monologue, Brandhorst’s twitching hand and habitual cigarette brought his character to life, serving as a reminder that effective acting lies in the details.

As the curtains swung open onto the grimy club of Seville, smoke drifted from the stage and enveloped the audience both physically and metaphorically into the heady world of seductive cabaret. Serrano, as an incredibly sultry Carmen, made an impressive entrance despite a slight wobble on the stairs due to her monstrously high heels. Otherwise, she made for a feisty lead with her mature, passionate voice. Mary-Jane (Charis Lawry-White) was a small but well-played part, emotionally acted as well as beautifully sung. In her meek kitten heels, she served as an excellent foil to the sassy Carmen in her 6-inch stilettos.

Considering the maturity of opera, this student interpretation of ‘Carmen’ could have come across as insincere, but the depth, control and soul of some of the voices – notably Issa’s – made for a moving performance. It is passionate, with a dangerous belligerence underpinning several of the human relationships. This aggression is physically realised in various on-stage fights between men and women alike.

The decision to re-write the opera in English was an interesting one. While the writers avoided alienating a student audience with a foreign language, at times the translation ran the risk of rendering the language too crude, particularly with the jovial Oscar Miller. His rather literal libretto brought several well-meaning laughs from the audience and dressed in baseball garb he was somewhat reminiscent of a student on a golf-themed bar crawl down Whiteladies Road.

Despite the mild liberation of women in the 20s, Carmen is a woman caught up in a man’s world. Despite her sass, she is still a prize to be won and the promise of her possession prompts the fight between Oscar and Joe. She asserts her personal autonomy, yet ultimately she is a man’s plaything and exists to be owned, loved and dominated.

Sometimes the orchestra dominated the voices and occasionally the girls’ heels interfered with the dancing and sexy skulking around the stage. But otherwise, ‘Carmen’ was a fantastic performance. Despite the American setting, Serrano possessed the sass of a Spanish gypsy and Issa’s Mister Joe had the passion of Don José. So head down to the Winston Theatre, grab a cider and prepare for a night of seductive, fiery opera.

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Chelsey Stuyt

at 09:46 on 1st Mar 2012

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Bristol University Operatic Society's 'Carmen' toddles out of the gate and into its audience's loving arms. Despite a few minor problems with the leads, the show is ultimately an impressive feat of student ingenuity.

Bizet's Carmen, normally set in 1820s Seville, has been updated and dropped into the world of prohibition era New York; a setting replete with dancing girls, gangsters, and swaggering baseball players. The libretto was impressively well translated and the famous “Torreador Song”, transformed into the fight song for the Torreador's baseball team, elicited several laughs from the audience. However, the music, directed by Alex Groves, while techically excellent seemed to be missing a bit of the vim and vigor that the task required.

In a throwback to the original Opera comique style, a narrator was introduced – the chain-smoking ghost of Mr. Joe (Tom Brandhorst). This addition gave the show an accessibility often missing from the majority of contemporary operas. However, the choice of a future Mr. Joe for the job, while helping the audience to focus on his development, was ultimately rather confusing given Joe's final act.

These character issues continued with the two main leads. Julian Issa's “Mr. Joe” seemed to disappear and fade into the background of every scene he entered. This was a shame as his voice was the most powerful on the stage. But the main issue was with the eponymous “Carmen” herself. Octavia Serrano's portrayal seemed a bit schizophrenic – particularly during the card scene where the previously self-assured and feisty Carmen suddenly transformed into a gullible girl upset over a playing card. This was one of several jarring moments that made it difficult to feel anything but confusion for her.

Staging an opera on a student budget is a Sisyphean task but one that was actually pulled off with style. From the club of the Seville, to the baseball stadium of the “Torreadors” baseball team, the set design really helped to pull everything together. The curtain opening upon a New York skyline built out of liquor bottles and wooden crates even drew a laugh of pleasure from the crowd. The direction, on the whole, was impressively well done and the choreography of the fight scenes was particularly impressive. The physicality of the cast on the whole – particularly of the male members – was impressive but underused. They spent much of their time frozen on the sidelines. Also, the female cast members, all young university students, seemed to feel a bit awkward in their corsets and high heels which detracted from the feeling of verismo that this opera is known for. However, the excellent dancing of Laura Curry (Francesca) and Rosanna Purdie (Mercedes) more than made up for it.

Ultimately this is an excellent student production of one of the world's most famous operas. While the performance seems to lack a certain vitality and a few of the actors feel a bit wooden, it is on the whole an impressive performance that should not be missed.

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