Opera Theatre Company presents 'Carmen'. Photo: Kip Carroll

Opera Theatre Company presents 'Carmen'. Photo: Kip Carroll

Opera Theatre Company presents 'Carmen'. Photo: Kip Carroll

Opera Theatre Company presents 'Carmen'. Photo: Kip Carroll

Opera Theatre Company presents 'Carmen'. Photo: Kip Carroll

Opera Theatre Company presents 'Carmen'. Photo: Kip Carroll

Opera Theatre Company presents 'Carmen'. Photo: Kip Carroll

Opera Theatre Company presents 'Carmen'. Photo: Kip Carroll

I've seen a lot of things in thirty years of watching opera, but I'd never seen an opera conducted by somebody wearing a hoody. Now I have, in Opera Theatre Company’s new staging of Bizet’s masterpiece Carmen. Why was conductor Andrew Synnott wearing it? Possibly to take the dress-down Friday ethic to audiences around the country, showing that opera isn’t exclusively intended for stuffed-shirt urbanites in monkey jackets. Here we had a cellist garbed in beach-bum surfer shorts, and a wind player in couch-potato track-suit trousers. Covent Garden it emphatically wasn’t.

Photo: Kip Carroll

A bigger reason for the grunginess was probably that the orchestra of thirteen players shared the platform with a cast of over twenty singers, confining the dramatic action to the stage-left area, and making it imperative that there shouldn’t be too great a sartorial difference between players and vocalists, creating distracting visual clashes. It worked excellently, adding to the sense of interaction between voices and instruments, and making the orchestra effectively an extra character in the tragedy unravelling beside them.

Director Gavin Quinn updates the action from nineteenth-century Seville to the present. The soldiers of Bizet’s original become thick-skulled Garda Síochána, the band of smugglers mutate into a travelling community, and Irish accents are applied to the sections of spoken dialogue, partially rewritten to incorporate local references. These transpositions are largely convincing, though you have to overlook the Spanish place-names retained in the libretto, and there’s an uncomfortable wince-factor when the Travellers cart in an impressive load of knocked-off flatscreen televisions to their mountain hideaway (here a dingy lock-up), a lazily provocative piece of stereotyping.

Photo: Kip CarrollThe evening starts a little statically, the choral ensembles of Act One appearing hemmed-in by the half-stage that director Quinn has to work with. From the entry of Escamillo in Act Two, however, a spark lights in the production. A pumped-up Owen Gilhooly, clearly enjoying himself immensely, delivers the famous 'Toreador Song' with infectious swagger – you can almost see his bullish self-confidence rubbing off instantly on the other performers.

The Don José of Texan tenor Michael Wade Lee is one of those to benefit from Gilhooly’s injection of dramatic impetus to the staging. He doesn’t quite convince (many Josés don’t) as Act One’s amorous ingénu, falling passionately in love with Carmen while at the same time hankering for the cossetting certainties of life at home with his “mammy”.

Lee’s is, however, a depiction that grows steadily in stature as the evening progresses, rising to considerable levels of intensity in the fatal confrontation with Carmen at the opera’s conclusion. If only he’d kept the knife he stabs Garda chief Zuniga with in Act Two handy; instead he uses what initially looks like a brick to bludgeon her. It’s obviously a sponge, however, and as a shower of red liquid squirts from it (before José actually hits her), it’s difficult to suppress a giggle. Bizet wanted a knife anyway, and I’d personally re-instate one before the production tours again in October.

Lee has a ringing tenor, and sings José excellently. His 'Flower Song' is beautifully thought through as a piece of self-revealing theatre; so often it emerges as the operatic equivalent of a shiftless pop song. He’s matched bar for bar by the Carmen of Irish mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm, who’s played the part on many occasions for Welsh National Opera. Her experience is telling: she does just enough to show the audience why José finds her sexually alluring, without resorting to pole-dancer tactics. Her 'Seguidilla' (sung astride a refuse buggy) is also subtly balanced, sexually provocative but also proud and dignified in deportment – this Carmen is much more than a simperingly libidinal sex-kitten. Vocally Drumm is indefatigable, still going strong at the end of a stamina-sapping evening.

Smaller parts are solidly taken, Limerick soprano Mairéad Buicke particularly impressing in her radical re-think of Micaëla, so often an unplausibly pure and saintly individual, with a Masters degree in operatic wetness. Buicke’s Micaëla is convincingly tougher, feistier and more interesting, with an occasional touch of dysfunctionality flickering across her features – an intriguing take on a potentially bland character.

Photo: Kip CarrollThe set designs of Aedín Cosgrove (like Quinn, co-director of the Pan Pan theatre company) are minimal, necessarily so in the cramped stage area available. A row of nondescript grey panels create a backdrop, while the foreground is populated by upended beer crates, old tyres, and empty tins of alcohol. Catherine Fay’s costumes are TK Maxx-contemporary, a scraggy amalgam of shell suits, Celtic shirts, spectacularly abbreviated skirts, and leopard-skin leggings. They fit the white trash ethic of Quinn’s interpretation perfectly.

Andrew Synnott directs the orchestra with crisp efficiency, and instrumentally there are outstanding contributions from Bogdan Sofei, the leader and first violinist, and Adrian Mantu on cello. The chorus is full of excellent young Irish voices of a rising operatic generation; I’d have loved to hear the women in the ravishing 'Cigarette Chorus' of Act One, sadly omitted.

All told, this is an intelligent and highly enjoyable Carmen, full of excellent singing and sharp insights into the emotional motivation of the principal characters. It has rough edges in places, but they don’t matter: the thing lives, breathes, and clutches at you emotionally, and is another triumph for this wonderfully plucky company.

Terry Blain is an arts journalist and cultural commentator, contributing regularly to BBC Music Magazine, Opera magazine, the Belfast Telegraph, Culture Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Carmen by Georges Bizet

3-18 May and 15-26 October 2013 (on tour)

Produced by Opera Theatre Company
In An Táin, Dundalk

Conductor: Andrew Synnott

Director: Gavin Quinn

Designer: Aedín Cosgrove

Costume Design: Catherine Fay

Repetiteur: Roy Holmes

With: Imelda Drumm, Michael Wade Lee, Mairéad Buicke, Owen Gilhooly, Mary O’Sullivan, Michael Dewis, Gerard O’Connor, Maria Hughes, Ciarán Kelly and Grace Bermingham, Robert Blake, Margaret Bridge, Callan Coughlan, Robert Duff, Carolyn Holt, Helene Hutchinson, Maria Kelly, and Joey Murray