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Gringyte's Carmen too strong to be bound by Alok Kumar's needy Don Jose

By Margaret Chrystall

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REVIEW:Scottish Opera's Carmen

Eden Court

5 stars

Is it possible that even here and now in the 21st century we prefer our opera heroines vulnerable and at the mercy of fickle men?

With her keening, passionate vocal performance it was Hye-Youn Lee as the childhood sweetheart Micaela – overlooked and taken for granted by Carmen-obsessed Don Jose – who got the most rapturous applause at Eden Court’s first night of Scottish Opera’s ambitious, captivating production of the opera.

Justina Gringyte as Carmen. Picture: James Glossop
Justina Gringyte as Carmen. Picture: James Glossop

Justina Gringyte creates a larger-than-life, mesmerising version of Bizet’s free-spirited heroine, from the start a murder victim waiting-to-happen in John Fulljames’ take on the story, rebooted as a crime drama in the unrest of 70s Spain.

And he never lets us forget it.

Having created an additional character in the Investigator (Carmen Pieraccini), the director makes her a constant presence, slowly walking the stage as another pair of eyes taking in the unfolding story, quizzing besotted murdering lover Don Jose (Alok Kumar) or looking down at her desk of evidence. That is shared with us via a live camera projecting big images of the photos, a bullfight poster, a detective’s tape machine, on the backdrop.

And it is a great device for getting under the skin of Carmen and Don Jose, whose love story is complicated – imperfect, gripped by both excessive passion and, at times, almost indifference to the world around their own vortex of swirling feelings.

The orchestra under conductor Toby Hession was super-responsive and the music so lush. Married with the opera being sung in English, it all underlined and powered what was playing out on the stage.

Justina Gringyte and Alok Kumar. Picture: James Glossop
Justina Gringyte and Alok Kumar. Picture: James Glossop

The seguidilla when Carmen uses her charms to seduce Don Jose to use him to escape after she has attacked another woman at work, is exquisite.

Micaela’s aria in Act III reinforced the realisation in Act I when she duets with Don Jose that Hye-Youn Lee’s voice is addictive and as sweet as her character.

Group scenes with the chorus, such as the soldiers waiting to ogle the women walking lazily out of the cigarette factory as their shift ends – and the Toreador’s Song, are choreographed to the max.

This production presents many frozen pictures like snapshots of people crowding round someone, as in the first act in the soldiers’ HQ, with their threatening, misogynistic teasing braved by Micaela.

That moment when she is being harassed by the men, is a reminder of the time and place this Carmen lives in.

Alok Kumar as Don Jose (seated) and the Investigator (Carmen Pieraccini. Piture: James Glossop
Alok Kumar as Don Jose (seated) and the Investigator (Carmen Pieraccini. Piture: James Glossop

Making the Investigator a woman is a reminder that those were changing times. But as recent Scottish news has revealed, a boys' culture mentality still exists today even in our own police.

In Carmen's world, the birth of feminism is happening, part of the societal turmoil hitting the streets post-Franco.

Carmen’s insistence on freedom to live on romance and destiny, if she chooses, chimes perfectly with that. Justina Gringyte's full-throated, resonant voice, revealed in her Act I aria as Carmen declares Love Is As Free As An Eagle Soaring, is a call to arms for the freedom to love as you like.

This is a Carmen that makes you see this opera’s iconic heroine in a new, maybe less flattering, but more human light.

Justina Gringyte as Carmen. Picture: JAMES GLOSSOP
Justina Gringyte as Carmen. Picture: JAMES GLOSSOP

Clearly Gringyte's Carmen is too strong and wilful to be bound by Alok Kumar's needy Don Jose or any other man, however much they appeal in passing. Even glamorous, brave Toreador Escamillo (Phillip Rhodes) – his victories in the bull ring cleverly portrayed on the backdrop through a photo montage we can witness – is a smitten hero. Would he interest Carmen for long, if things had been different?

John Fulljames' setting of this most beloved of opera's sets fire to the imagination and would be a great 'starter' version for newcomers. But for anyone, it forces you to look again at our world and how we got here, maybe even how we want to live.

The last performance of Carmen at Eden Court is on Saturday at 7.15pm. It is an audio-described performance and there is a touch tour at 6pm which should be booke with pox office.There is also a pre-show talk at 6pm on Saturday, with the half-hour session delving into the detail of Carmen, designed to enhance the audience's enjoyment and knowledge of the opera. Tickets are free but should be reserved in advance as there is limited availability. TICKETS:

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