I have seen many interpretations of Carmen over the years; operatic, balletic, dramatic and on ice skates. While waiting for the curtain to rise at Regent Theatre in Stoke-On-Trent, I reflected on the brave decision to produce this version to a new score, rather than using the superb (and very well known) Bizet one.
Changing the familiar is often a recipe for disaster; ballet fans are (generally) extremely conservative, and any change to the norm usually results in a less than flattering review. The score for this Carmen was written by Christopher Benstead. The program revealed that there were to be singing as accompaniment to the dancing. This keeps the operatic side alive but this wasn't going to be opera. The words are in Spanish; a translation is provided in the program.
The set for this production is very clever. Six large wooden tables become the prison, the tobacco factory, buildings, a riverbank, the bullring and a gallows simply by moving them around and turning them over. This occurs as we watch, usually behind a quick dance in the foreground. Across the back of the stage is an arc of lights, and there are visible lighting racks in the wings. The costumes are all pastel colours. Light blue for the soldiers uniforms and earthy shades for the gypsies. This provides maximum contrast for Carmen, who naturally wears scarlet.
There isn't a pointe shoe in this ballet; it's all ballet slippers and a few pairs of high heels. This is Carmen delivered in contemporary ballet with a dash of flamenco.
The score provides a good foundation on which to build the dance. The addition of acoustic guitar to the orchestra works well, giving the required Spanish feel to work. These guitars are obviously miked; there was some distortion in their sound, but this may well be intentional. It certainly worked for me; if you have ever heard gypsy guitar in an outdoor setting, the distortion is part of the sound. The program says accordion features in the orchestra too, but I didn't pick the sound of one. I found the occasional vocals ineffective and in one scene annoying, especially the baritone. The singers (Annique Burns and Alexander Poulton) are clearly very talented but their vocal skills I felt were wasted.
Towards the end of act 1, Don Jose (Luca Martini) and Carmen (Elena Schneider) perform a sweeping pdd. This is a very passionate scene but there is very little embracing by the two dancers. The passion and excitement of their new found love is portrayed with steps that travel across the stage. Both dancers worked very hard in this very gritty scene.
The final knife fight is act 1 between Don Jose and his rival is very well choreographed. The mime was so powerful that it made me forget I was watching dancing; the two men turned, trusted and taunted each other until the inevitable stabbing. This scene had a very filmic quality. For a second it was as if watching the two protagonists in close up.
Act 2 delivered more of the same set and more honest dancing. The picador (Glauco Di Lieto) has a splendid solo in the bull ring, as he acknowledges the crowd and prepares for his contest. The entrance of the bull is spectacularly simple; a dancer dressed in black and back lit so we just see him in silhouette is all that is required. Simple and effective.
The ballet features a series of simple but effective devices; we open with Done Jose about to be executed and then the action takes place in his mind, as he contemplates his fate. The picador being gored by the bull is well handled as is the final confrontation and ultimate demise of Carmen. This final scene was marred only by the unnecessary vocals. Again Don Jose and Carmen gave very gritty performances. In one move, Don Jose slams Carmen against the wall; judging by the sound this must have hurt.
This is the first time that I have seen Scottish Ballet, so I did not know any of the dancers. According to the program, most of the company has jointed in the last two or three years. The chaps were very convincing as the soldiers; their grand jetes in unison as they chased their quarry. Hopefully it won't be the last time that I get to see them.
Sadly this is not a Carmen to die for, but it is very watchable. I am pleased to report that performances of good ballet is not confined to the major cities.
A question for any Spanish speakers out there. Should the word "don" have a capital "D"? I think it means lord or perhaps mister. In English, titles generally have capital letters.