Scottish Opera has been working hard to bring new audiences into the theatre to experience opera for the very first time. In Unwrapped sessions, newcomers to opera are given an hour-long explanation of the work they will see in a few days’ time, using understudies to illustrate key parts and peppered with insights about what goes on backstage. Happily, Glasgow’s Theatre Royal was completely full for this performance, with some Unwrapped audience returning to experience opera for the very first time. Carmen, absolutely bursting with drama, passion and featuring familiar tunes is not a bad place to start.

Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s 1998 co-production with Welsh National Opera still looks as handsome as it did, with Benjamin Davis directing this revival which explores the serious themes of domestic violence, bullying, sexual harassment and jealousy. Christian Fenouillat’s simple set of three darkly painted walls of modern art washes and minimal props needs atmospheric lighting to make it all work, Robert B. Dickson bringing original lighting designer Christophe Forey’s moody lighting plot to life. Agnostino Cavalca’s costumes were all traditional Spanish peasant style with ragged country clothes and caps for the men and colourful full length skirts and tops for the cigarette girls, the soldiers kitted out with natty light mustard uniforms.

It is a dark interpretation of this tale of rejection and revenge, as heat-weary soldiers with too much time on their hands harangue the factory girls who flirt, bicker and fight each other. Infatuated Don José is a man consumed with jealousy, while Carmen shamelessly uses her wiles to suit her situation, escaping jail, ‘taking care of the customs men’ guarding the smugglers’ route and playing her admirers Don José and bullfighter Escamillo off each other.   On stage, the shadows loomed in the inn and later in the mountains, only a flickering bonfire illuminating the gypsys’ card game of fate. What is compelling about this opera’s band of roguish characters is the red-hot passion, breath-taking drama played out in a dangerous world of ruthless soldiers, desperate bandits and finally, the dusty bullring.

Scottish Opera’s emerging artists programme which nurtures young singers has clearly paid off as this production saw three former trainees back to tackle more meatier roles: Andrew McTaggart’s leery corporal Moralès, Marie Claire Breen’s feisty gypsy Mercédès and Nadine Livingstone’s sweetly sung Micaëla, in a touching performance pleading with Don José to return home to his village and family. In what was a strong supporting cast, Ellie Laugharne’s Frasquita completed a gutsy gypsy line-up. All eyes were drawn to Justina Gringyte as Carmen, the star turn of the show, whose magnetic stage presence turned sultry, spitting-angry, vulnerable and passionate as she tore into her arias with a vengeance and astonishing vocal verve. She even seemed to get round the oddly clunky French dialogue convincingly.   It was a performance that Harlem-born Noah Stewart’s José with his strong but rather dry timbre was never quite able to match vocally and his rather too-cool relationship with Carmen only emphased his infatuation.  

The big chorus numbers were certainly impressive, especially the splendidly gung-ho feral childrens’ chorus, starting their cigarette habits early and lining up right across the front of the stage to cheer the bullfighters at the end, a credit to chorus master and newcomer to Scottish Opera André Kellinghaus. It was disappointing that David Parry in the pit never quite turned up the heat enough as some key moments fell rather flat, and some ensemble needing tightened up here and there, but the sound balance was generally good. When the company let rip in the final choruses we were certainly pinned back into our seats.

We really do remember our first operas. For the Carmen Unwrapped first-timers, this must have been quite overwhelming in the best possible way. They will have been impressed by the drama, the spectacle and the sheer volume of sound but they will take home with them the wonderful performance from Justina Gringyte in the title role. Scottish Opera will no doubt be asking what they thought, and I certainly hope they come back for more.