If there’s one opera I hold close to my heart it’s Bizet’s Carmen. I saw it performed in Newcastle when I was young but wanted to share my love of it with husband, Dougie. We decided to see it in style, so booked tickets for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
I have my mum to thank for my enduring affection for this spectacular piece of theatre. She’s now in her eighties but as a young woman my mum, Eileen, was a professional singer in Newcastle. One of the songs in her repertoire was the Habanera from Carmen. She adored singing this sensual, spine-tingling aria, taking on the role of the Spanish siren with ease.
In 1959, aged 24, she appeared live on the first night of Tyne Tees Television. It was called The Big Show; a star-studded extravaganza including actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. Eileen was asked to sing the Habanera, with a full orchestra and dancers to accompany her.
Years later, in 1989, Mum was given a recording of the performance from the archives. For the first time we were able to see how utterly fabulous she was, sashaying across the stage, completely embodying the bewitching nature of Carmen. I uploaded it to YouTube a few years ago so everyone could see Eileen Brennan singing the Habanera. She loves that.
The production of Carmen we watched in London last week is a very contemporary but quite brilliant take on the original. All the action takes place on a huge set of Hollywood-style steps. Director Barrie Kosky has created a show which has the appeal of a hit West End musical. The French narration introduces each scene, cutting out much of the sung dialogue to focus on the big numbers but inserting additional music Bizet omitted from early performances.
This version hasn’t appealed to all opera lovers, however, who feel the sultry setting of Seville has been replaced by stark monochrome. We loved the interpretation: the songs take centre stage and there are gorgeous pops of colour – Carmen dressed in a hot pink matador outfit – which make this production sizzle.
The choreography brings even more life to the opera. The huge ensemble have a more demanding role than usual: scrambling up and down the steps whilst singing four-part harmony is quite an ask. Six expert dancers bring dazzling movement to many of the famous tunes. And the addition of young school children, leaping up and down to the March of the Toreadors, is simple but hugely effective.
We were buzzing when we came out of the theatre: it was one of the most powerful shows we have ever seen on stage. Carmen, played by mezzo-soprano Anaik Morel, was superb as the gypsy temptress, running rings around the men who were captivated by her.
But wonderful as she was, she will never replace in my heart my favourite, most loved Carmen of all. My mum, Eileen, will always take that top spot.
You can read Trish’s blog at www.mumsgoneto.co.uk
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