It’s no small feat to bring a repertoire staple like Carmen to life in a way that feels fresh and immediate for die-hard opera-goers without short-changing or muddying the waters for newcomers, but Annabel Arden’s new production for The Grange achieves exactly that. There’s little overtly Spanish colour on display, but the hothouse atmosphere of a community on the margins of society where sex and violence are forever bubbling just below the surface is brilliantly realised.

Marianne Croux (Frasquita), Na'ama Goldman (Carmen) and Filipa van Eck (Mercédès) © Robert Workman
Marianne Croux (Frasquita), Na'ama Goldman (Carmen) and Filipa van Eck (Mercédès)
© Robert Workman

Arden’s decision to replace much of the dialogue with narration may polarise opinion, and I personally find it rather intrusive and lacking nuance in places, especially when we’re told rather than shown what the characters are feeling and when it interrupts the flow of the music. Rather than plunging straight into the portentous “fate” motif from the fizzing overture, for instance, we pause for some heavy-handed exposition. But Aicha Kossoko and Tonderai Munyevu perform their roles as narrators with flair and conviction, and the moments where they step into the drama and engaged with the characters are often highly effective.

The energy and commitment of the young cast is irresistible, and all four principals come to their roles having seemingly thrown away the rule-book in the best sense of the expression. Resisting the urge to push her tangy lyric voice beyond its comfort-zone, Israeli mezzo Na'ama Goldman sings the heroine entirely on her own terms: her Carmen is all the more compelling for her refusal to play to the gallery, in any sense. Right from her first appearance (emerging almost unobtrusively from the crowd rather than making a grand entrance), the overriding impression is that this Carmen is simply a woman committed to living life to the full rather than an attention-seeking diva; one senses that she’s well-liked and fun to be around, and that her magnetic allure can’t be reduced to sheer sex-appeal (though she has that in spades, drawing lustful glances from several female co-workers as well as their soldier boyfriends in the “Habanera”). She’s also touchingly vulnerable in her infatuation with Jose, which comes across as a real game-changer rather than a mere notch on the bedpost: because aiming to please is evidently out of character for her, her attempted seduction of him in Act Two is shot through with awkwardness instead of coming across as a practised bit of cold hustle, and she clearly regards Micaëla as a credible rival rather than a pushover. Shelley Jackson is indeed a force to be reckoned with in this role, with a big, juicy lyric soprano that conveys wholesomeness and sensuality at the same time. She’s feisty enough to pull a blade on the cat-calling soldiers when she first appears, and her love-duet with Jose has only slightly less sexual charge than his later interactions with Carmen.

Na'ama Goldman (Carmen) and Leonardo Capalbo (Don José) © Robert Workman
Na'ama Goldman (Carmen) and Leonardo Capalbo (Don José)
© Robert Workman

Another character who’s given an interesting rethink by Arden is Escamillo (classily sung by New Zealand baritone Phillip Rhodes), who – like Carmen herself – is denied the usual high-octane entrance to great effect: the first verse of the “Toreador Song” is delivered not as a crowd-pleasing show-stopper but a haunted interior monologue as he tries to drown ugly flashbacks of the recent bull-fight with cheap booze before forcing himself to greet his public. It works, and gives real substance to his connection with Carmen, who recognises the cracks behind the veneer and is evidently able to empathise.

Leonardo Capalbo (Don José) and Shelley Jackson (Micaëla) © Robert Workman
Leonardo Capalbo (Don José) and Shelley Jackson (Micaëla)
© Robert Workman

Leonardo Capalbo’s lithe, Byronically handsome Don José (packing a borderline dramatic tenor which seems more comfortable in the high-voltage outbursts of the last two acts than the long-breathed lines of the “Flower Song”) is also more multi-faceted than usual: though the narrators establish that a gambling addiction lurks in his past, he comes across as so sociable and well-adjusted in the early scenes that I was beginning to wonder how on earth his metamorphosis into homicidal psychopath was going to play out convincingly. It turns, quite literally, on a knife-edge, in what was for me the production’s most shocking innovation. Rather than simply squaring up to Zuniga (Grigory Soloviov) when his assignation with Carmen is interrupted, he stabs him to death with almost prosaic detachment, and the blithe disregard with which the chorus step over the officer’s corpse as they celebrate José’s initiation into the smugglers’ underworld makes for one of the most chilling scenes I’ve seen in a theatre all year. He and Arden pace the long arc of the terrifying final scene superbly, though for me the decision to have Carmen die off-stage struck a slightly perverse note: the opera is, after all, Carmen and not Don José.

In the pit, things were as fresh and unhackneyed as they were on stage: Jean-Luc Tingaud keeps the dramatic impetus alive with fairly swift tempi and little dashes of rubato that serve to point up the score’s flashes of wit here and there and to heighten tension elsewhere.   

Tiago Matos, Christophe Poncet de Solages, Phillip Rhodes (Escamillo) and Na'ama Goldman (Carmen) © Robert Workman
Tiago Matos, Christophe Poncet de Solages, Phillip Rhodes (Escamillo) and Na'ama Goldman (Carmen)
© Robert Workman