Scottish Opera picked Bizet’s famous crowd pleaser to round off their 60th anniversary season in an intriguing production from John Fulljames. Harking back to Prosper Mérimée’s novella and moving the story to a turbulent Spain emerging from General Franco’s dictatorship in the late 1970s, his version of Carmen captures the seething social undercurrent in the Seville factories, the tension rising as the people test the boundaries of authority.

Alok Kumar (Don José) and Carmen Pieraccini (Investigator)
© James Glossop

Fulljames constructs the opera as a police procedural, introducing a non-singing but ever-present Investigator who assembles evidence on her desk during the prelude, a growing collection of sepia photos, bullring tickets and cigarette packets appearing in gigantic live projection on the walls. Actor Carmen Pieraccini's Glaswegian dialogue amusingly hinted at Taggart’s iconic DI Jackie Reid as she paced the set, fiddled with a tennis ball and, like many in the cast, smoked cigarettes with purpose. With additional spoken dialogue taking a key role, the opera was sung in English in a new translation by Christopher Cowell.

Designer Sarah Beaton’s set consists of minimal bare walls rising up to take us beyond the police station and into the story in flashback. Props are a few utility tables and stacking vinyl chairs, but the set is a blank canvas for James Farncombe’s lighting and Will Duke’s vivid projections to have free rein, taking us from the investigation to the streets, a seedy bar, smugglers' secret meeting places and the dazzlingly bright sunshine and dust of the Seville bullring.

Justina Gringytė (Carmen) and Alok Kumar (Don José)
© James Glossop

The chorus play a major role in the story: louche and bored soldiers, pugnacious factory women, militant crowds, weather-beaten smugglers and a frenzied bullring crowd. They all made a wonderful noise under Susannah Wapshott’s direction, with a lively children’s chorus adding fervour to the final scene. Jenny Ogilvie’s organic movement direction captures the underlying tension throughout, although the unison gestures in the first act jar. Christina Cunningham’s costumes effectively tell a story, muted sepia pastels for factory workers, 1970s blue-green soldiers, swarthy gun-smugglers until a sunny burst of bright summery clothes arrives for the bullring showdown.

Justina Gringytė (Carmen)
© James Glossop

With the main opera a back-story against the live investigation, there was nevertheless plenty of passion as Lithuanian Justina Gringytė’s smouldering wild-child Carmen led the workers push to end oppression, mercilessly used José to escape and became a smuggler’s moll, taking up with toreador Escamillo. Returning to Scottish Opera in the role, Gringytė’s full rich mezzo came with challenging attitude in spades.

As Don José, tenor Alok Kumar had to juxtapose himself between his confession in the present, probing inquiry and stepping back into the events leading him there, but he was a commanding presence with a depth and resounding resonance, exhilarating as he faced up Carmen at the end. Though slightly weak in his lower register, Phillip Rhodes was an impressive Escamillo. Giving a fine performance as the maligned Micaëla, Hye-Youn Lee thrilled in her Act 3 aria as she tried to persuade the wayward, love-struck José to return home. 

Elsewhere, Scottish Opera Emerging Artists were admirably showcased by Zoe Drummond and Lea Shaw as Frasquita and Mercédès (Carmen’s friends), and Colin Murray and Ossian Wyn Bowen as Dancaïre and Remendado (criminals) with fine performances all round. Dan Shelvey as Moralès and Thomas D Hopkinson as Zuniga, José’s superior, soundly completed the line-up.

Phillip Rhodes (Escamillo)
© James Glossop

In the pit, Australian Dane Lam conjured up Bizet’s score with energy and vigour, the Scottish Opera Orchestra nimbly responding with lively strings, bright woodwinds and splendid brass. Tune after tune tumbled out, Lam keeping his musicians and singers well in step, tempering the excitement with lyrical delights, some lovely flute solos and nifty castanets.

There were a few drawbacks. Occasionally the production got in the way; in Act 1, for instance, Micaëla and José seem to be marooned in the separate time zones leaving Micaëla only a stand-and-deliver option. Cowell’s libretto is slightly clunky and some of the video projections overstay their welcome. That said, Fulljames makes us look at Carmen in a new and interesting light with the 1970s throwing up a remarkable parallel in Spanish social unrest, shocking in its misogynist norms as shown by Micaëla being bullied by soldiers. As the Inspector places evidence number tags beside the final crime scene, re-creating the photos from the beginning, the production comes to a neat full circle as the past joins the present. A fine end to Scottish Opera’s 60th birthday season.