The distressed walls of Wilton's Music Hall, in London's East End, are not dissimilar to the interior of Les Bouffes du Nord, the Parisian theatre where, in 1981, Peter Brook presented his distillation of Bizet's Carmen – a compact 80-minute drama under the title La Tragédie de Carmen. Paring the action down to just four singers, it's the perfect vehicle and venue for a handful of the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists to strut their stuff, directed by former JPYA Gerard Jones. Alas, rather than La Tragédie, Jones too often seems intent on directing La Comédie de Carmen instead.

Aigul Akhmetshina (Carmen) © Clive Barda
Aigul Akhmetshina (Carmen)
© Clive Barda

Designer Cécile Trémolieres' neon lighting, fringe foil curtains and a glitterball give Wilton's the impression of a low-rent nightclub. Although no self-respecting Carmen is going to wear trainers to a disco, there's no essential problem in updating the action. But Jones trips himself up in the programme booklet, describing his production as “radical” then having to back-pedal in the same paragraph, admitting the story “doesn't need anything radical done to it”. Time and place were far less important to Brook than the focus on character-driven drama. In 1983, The New York Times dismissed La Tragédie as “a self-indulgent auteur's meditation on the opera's theme” but in stripping away the crowd scenes – and the comedy – from Bizet's score, and returning to Prosper Mérimée's novella on which the opera was based as inspiration, the resulting work is earthy and gripping.

Jones undermines that earthiness by injecting misplaced humour. Handcuffed to a chair for her Séguidille, Carmen whips off her knickers to toss to Don José instead of the usual flower (the only flower in this staging is the rose tattooed on her upper arm), making his retention of them more than a little perverted. Her Chanson bohème is a disco number where she is upstaged by the gyrations of an actor playing the club's caretaker. A smug José lights up a post-coital cigarette. Gyula Nagy's Escamillo comes off the worst, his Toreador Song played for laughs when he should be causing hearts – not least Carmen's – to flutter.

Aigul Akhmetshina (Carmen) © Clive Barda
Aigul Akhmetshina (Carmen)
© Clive Barda

Aigul Akhmetshina certainly did cause hearts to flutter. Indeed, she seemed to have more fun flirting with the audience than with her Don José at times. Her sultry Carmen is the real deal and she's destined to perform the full role many times in her career. Her mezzo is ripe and syrupy, seductive in her habanera – where she has to entrance José by slowly peeling a satsuma! – and full of allure. Jones has Akhmetshina as a Carmen in charge of her own destiny; rather than being knifed by José at the end, she places the knife in his hand and forces him to plunge it into her stomach.

Thomas Atkins was a very likeable José, his fast vibrato and vibrant tenor leading to a passionate Flower Song; a black mark though for lighting designer Joshua Pharo for keeping Carmen in the dark here – we really need to see her response to José's declaration. Francesca Chiejina was presented as a coy Micaëla – a sweet young thing in a pussycat sweater – and not the credible love rival that Brook makes of her. There was a little too much metal in her soprano for this small venue, although she sang movingly, especially in her aria where Marius Constant's musical adaptation is at its most daring, turning the second verse into a duet with Carmen, who muses on the fate her cards have just dealt her. Nagy's roaring baritone and mangled French disappointed as Escamillo. His toreador was also denied his death in the bullring (in Brook's version), here shot by José instead.

Gyula Nagy (Escamillo) and Aigul Akhmetshina (Carmen) © Clive Barda
Gyula Nagy (Escamillo) and Aigul Akhmetshina (Carmen)
© Clive Barda

The Southbank Sinfonia was placed at the rear of the stage, James Hendry thus facing the audience to conduct, which was distracting and added – unintentional – comedy. Aside from some uncertain woodwind intonation in the Act 3 entr'acte, the playing was very strong, particularly the viola solo which opens and closes the work, along with the timpani, tapping out the habanera rhythm. 

A missed opportunity then, but worth catching for Akhmetshina's terrific Carmen.