Speaker by Various Artists

Carmen for Beginners

by James Littlewood

It's been an interesting year for the opera company, the lamentably named NBRNZO (I'll shorten it to the more comprehensible NZO if that's ok thanks). After an admirably risky take on Donnizetti's The Elixir of Love which - I'm guessing - can't have helped the budget much due to its small audiences, they always knew that closing the season with Carmen would make up the shortfall. Elixir was interesting, by the way, ripped out of its 19th Century Italian village setting and plonked into a Californian high school in the hair-as-big-as-your-attitude 1980s.

I apologise for not including any links in this, by the way. I'm writing in a Balmoral cyber café. My machine's in storage, the auto-correct and auto-format functions on this machine are haywire, I don't have all my code tags to hand and the Indian family down the other end are game-blowing each other to smithereens, all of which is also hammering my now-famous capacity for typos and spelling errors. I need to leave this place.

Anyway, Carmen has got everything that its place at the top of the canon requires of it: death of the whore, the soldier's troubled heart, social judgment, a virile male sexual competitor and endless tunes that have worked their way into vast tracts of the collective unconscious. Sitting there soaking it up, you get the feeling that you know every single note from beginning to end. It's like listening to the Beatles. The fact that much of it is chocolate box corny just sort of goes with the territory.

It's not really corny. In addition to the above mentioned narrative components, Carmen has its fair share of grunty themes: security vs. freedom, society vs. anarchy, religion vs. paganism, and love of the mother vs. lust for the slag: good, healthy, workaday opera fair.

The peculiar thing about Carmen is the fact that while your Butterflies, Toscas, Traviatas and so on are generally good stories more-or-less well told, Henri Meilac's Carmen libretto is a total lemon, or to put it more politely, presents any production with apparently insurmountable challenges.

There is endless self description: 'People come, people go, we just sit' say the jolly soldiers. 'Everybody loves Carmen' sing the jolly ladies from the jolly fag factory. And it's true. Despite the push towards naturalism at the time it was written, the writers' adage 'show, don't tell' was clearly some way removed from Meilac's awareness. Carmen's libretto is so full of these self-explanations, it's a wonder anything actually happens at all.

Fortunately, these self-and-other descriptions get increasingly meaningful as Carmen and Don Jose pursue their misguided affair. 'Are you the devil?' Don Jose demands of Carmen. 'Yes, I am' she candidly replies. Later when he says 'Carmen, you're the devil!' she simply has to say 'I already told you that'. Does pathos include the simultaneous presentation of humour and tragedy?

So, just why does a ranking officer fall for the town bike? As the chorus have already informed us, everybody loves Carmen. This presents an immediate problem for both the main parts: since we already know Carmen must be hot, and that Don Jose - being a subset of 'everybody' - must therefore be in love with her, and since Bizet does such a killer job of playing out the sub-text in the score, this doesn't leave the artists on stage much room for their own inventions.

In the opening scenes, Rafael Davila as the soldier Don Jose does well to adopt a less-is-more approach. As Malcolm Maclaren paraphrased Carmen: 'if you love me, your love is not worth having/ It's the love I can't have that I really want, baby.' Whatever it is inside him that makes him fall for the seductress's spell, it's not explicit in the text. So artist and director either have to invent a motivation, or go for Carmen's (again, descriptive) line that her flower is magic. I wasn't buying the latter, and there ain't no former. In the absence of clear motivation, Davila's understated performance in the first half enables music, mise en scene and audience imagination do the rest. Nothing wrong with that.

Although his motivation is not explicit, there are some suggestive inferences which Davila ignores, allowing his early low-key delivery get out of hand. I've always thought the line 'A kiss from my mother!' should be dripping - raging - in angst, resulting from the fact that he's never really been that interested in the pretty girl from next door who delivers the kiss, and with whom he is now looking down the barrel of marriage. Further, Macaela can't even bring herself to kiss him without invoking his mother. He should be a boiling pit of confused desires at this point. And she should be playing the mother card for all it's worth, a poor relative of Carmen's more effective seductive arts. Davila never looks sufficiently uncomfortable in this passage.

Unfortunately for Jessie Raven, the words 'Carmen' and 'understated' tend to be mutually exclusive. It's a tricky entrance, due to the endless chorus descriptions of her character immediately beforehand. As descriptions go, it's a hard one for anyone to live up to, let alone your averagely well turned out operatic diva. Raven doesn't come up with much more than a predictable twang of a soldier's braces and a tweak of another's lapel.

It is slightly disappointing that the NZO has taken a soft option on a repertoire piece that will fill the house regardless. Not only that, but it's a soft option on a piece that - as everyone knows - is about one single thing: passion, of the unbridled, raw, gutsy, sweaty, animal variety (the high incidence of bosomy Carmenites in the audience amply confirmed this expectation ... unbelievable).

It's a lamentable fact that this opera disappoints in production more often than it satisfies. I've always thought that if she worked in a fag factory, for some reason her gums and teeth would be shot. Give us a Carmen that stinks of body fluids, please. A Carmen that works her beauty like an ironmonger works his bar. Give us a Carmen in which every body on stage is delirious with heat exhaustion and covered in sweaty filth, a setting with the heat of the planet Venus and the moral torpitude of hell.

Interval. Deep breaths. It's been a well-mannered affair so far, only occasionally impeding on the visceral humanity of the piece, and certainly giving the score a good outing.

Curtain up, we're in the mountains. As Don Jose moves inexorably away from his mama's boy comfort zone, Davila finds increasing opportunities to inject the passionate lust and desperate confusion that define the character, both in his voice and his presence. Similarly, Raven's Gypsey Carmen appears to take flight as she reclaims her happiness: mountains to roam, people to rob and a dutiful doughboy attending her whim and fancy.

As the leading couple's ironic differences escalate into insurmountable conflict, the performers get to dig in, and you get the feeling that they're finally liberated from the more polite conventions that dominate Jonathan Cocker's direction. Davila's voice starts to ring bells, and Raven produces a degree of energy, strength and poise hitherto absent. I guess I would too, if I was approaching the kind of wasted ending that rushes up to clobber Carmen.

Elizabeth Whiting's costumes do nothing to alleviate the production's good manners, strangely clothing Carmen in more - and tidier - fabric than her factory colleagues. John Verryt's sets lack the clarity of vision he usually achieves, although like the performances, all production elements seem to unite once we hit the mountains. It's as if the entire production requires the advanced narrative conflicts before it can produce its own coherent voice.

It's well worth the wait, because once everyone's pulling in the same direction, you can't help but let the music and the drama affect you. You'd have to be one mean bastard not to feel something for the girl who wants everything, and the man who wants nothing but the girl. Anyone who's ever fallen in love with the wrong person will recognise the horror all too well.

The clumsy writing kicks in again at the end. She dies, of course. Whoever said it ain't over till the fat lady sings had clearly never seen an opera. She'll sing alright, but it ain't really over till she dies. Carmen's end is more abrupt than most. It always takes me by surprise. Weird.

It's often said that this kind of opera was written at a time when naturalism was an emerging force in the arts and in theatre in particular. I don't doubt that, but it's also a comment that is often made to let productions off the hook, as if to say 'look, when this first came out, it was shocking! It showed real people. It had death, sex, murder and everything!'

The truth is that there has never really been a period in which realism was not a primary goal in art, but also that art has always changed the way it positions itself relative to the real, in order to reveal 'it' as some kind of truth, be it visually, conceptually or whatever.

In the late 19th Century, it may have been a function of showing real people's lives that the naturalist movement tended also to shock people. They weren't used to it. But the mere fact of shock itself should not be underestimated as a goal of art. As the art teacher in Six Feet Under (another kind of Gypsy) says, 'the most useful organ you have is your bowel, precisely because it's the furthest from your eyes. If you feel your art down there, you know you've got something.'

To rephrase, shock itself is a bodily confrontation with reality. Carmen the opera is populated by totally incomplete characters, who crave each others' and their own bodies as much out of pure boredom and opportunism as anything else. Follow that logic, and you'll shock people into suspended disbelief. Deny it, and you've got an adequate concert performance. It won't hide the powerful themes, but it won't drive the gutsy themes into the audience's viscera like it should, either.