La Tragédie de Carmen review – opera on an unforgivingly small scale

Wilton’s Music Hall, London
Peter Brook’s take on Bizet squeezes all the famous tunes into an economic, stripped-down production for four, but demanded too much of these singers

Strip all the packaging off Bizet’s Carmen – the cigarette factory girls, the smugglers, the matadors’ parade, y viva España – and what are you left with? A focused tragedy involving just four people. That’s what Peter Brook argued when, in 1981, he created La Tragédie de Carmen. Composer Marius Constant cut, pasted and rearranged Bizet’s score for a chamber ensemble, and Brook took the dialogue back to something closer to the Prosper Mérimée novella, Bizet’s original source, reinstating Carmen’s inconvenient husband, for instance.

But let’s be honest: for most opera companies, staging La Tragédie de Carmen is less about seeking dramatic truth than about the opportunity to sell Bizet’s famous tunes with fewer overheads, in a format lasting about half the duration of a regular Carmen. The Royal Opera’s production is a vehicle for the young professionals on its Jette Parker Young Artists programme – its second in the atmospherically shabby setting of Wilton’s Music Hall, following last year’s Oreste – and as a showcase, it cut both ways. All four singers demonstrate that they are capable of taking their roles in a full-scale Carmen one day soon, but none comes out seeming like the finished article. It feels like a student show.

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