Creating Carmen, Brighton - review

'Creating Carmen'. David Massey, Emily Andrews, Robin Soans (Mrime), Suzanne Ahmet (Carmen), Francisco Correa Pic Victor Huang.
'Creating Carmen'. David Massey, Emily Andrews, Robin Soans (Mrime), Suzanne Ahmet (Carmen), Francisco Correa Pic Victor Huang.

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

World premiere of concert-play ‘Creating Carmen’ by Clare Norburn at St George’s Kemp Town on Friday 22 November 2019 (7.30pm). CarmenCo: Emily Andrews mezzo & flute, David Massey & Francisco Correa guitars, Robin Soans as Prosper Mérimée, Suzanne Ahmet as Carmen.

Music by Bizet (Carmen items in full and extract), de Falla, Albeniz, Rodrigo, Tarrega, Boccherini, Ravel, Borne, Lorca. Nicholas Renton director, Natalie Rowland lighting designer.

Dicing with Carmen is an alluring game with fire. But the creating forces partying here have set alight something that could burn brightly for them. There is an almost divine combination of music with human action and psychological insight.

‘Creating Carmen’ is less Bizet’s Parisian sight of Spain than Spain’s own Spain. Although it is about a French author at work at home, the necessary atmosphere set by the almost entirely Spanish music is authentic and beguilingly luminescent. The acting is perceptive and dynamic, the script and scenario both absorbing and funny. The audience are moths to the flame of Carmen all over again.

For this task and opportunity, the London-based trio CarmenCo are a celestial conception. A rare combination of two classical guitarists, one British one Colombian, and a British singer with a flute degree. Two subtle and passionate guitars pack double their expressive and transporting power, and to the essences of Carmen herself the flute has the free and flighty, airy lightness, plus the deeper sensuality of no other instrument. Indeed, Bizet has already shown us that.

CarmenCo perform entirely from memory. The musical arrangements are theirs. The players can be mobile as they perform. The flautist can also dance, as well as sing and also click castanets. They don’t put a foot wrong. They place it all right there in Seville. A remarkable resource.

The trio had put together a sequence of extracts from Bizet’s world-winning music with distinctive, combined with familiar and evocative Spanish pieces. Then along came Clare Norburn with the play, bearing her trademark of co-habiting fantasy and reality, and ‘Creating Carmen’ fell into place.

The raw material for ‘Creating Carmen’ is one of the most potently popular operas alive – deeply human, alluring and self-destructive. Norburn noses right inside the thought processes of Prosper Mérimée, the French author of ‘Carmen’ – his short novel that inspired 30 years later Bizet’s hit-loaded 1875 opera, adored by Brahms, admired by Nietzsche, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, and in box office the envy of everyone in theatre.

The experienced Robin Soans candidly and vividly shares Mérimée’s practical and psychological creative processes with the audience. Then Carmen comes crashing into his world, his writing room, in person, with her musicians. Her conflict and chemistry with Mérimée abrasive and emollient by momentary turns, start to commandeer control over the direction of the story inside his head.

Young Greek-Turkish Cypriot, Suzanne Ahmet, purrs, scratches and strokes, crackles and boils as Carmen’s volatile life force. And, as well as with her musicians, like Soans she engages directly with the audience in an immersing production of ever progressing tension and comic humour.

Bizet himself barely survived the composition of his Carmen opera. He, too, encountered an incendiary soprano, Célestine Gallo-Marié, his first-cast Carmen and a fierce champion of the opera, stoking theatre establishment antagonism before the explosive premiere. Just three months later, Bizet succumbed to a heart attack at only 36, on his wedding anniversary, despite 33 performances, refusing to believe he had overcome the opposition of the Parisian bourgeoisie and music critics to his low-society realism – so he missed all its accelerating success.

While ‘Creating Carmen’, Mérimée is in mid-age crisis, his love life and hormones all at sea, and in his deepening entanglement with this stormy, unchainable gypsy girl, he might easily have preceded the composer.

Directed with consummate skill by Nicholas Renton, ‘Creating Carmen’ is ideally suited to intimate studio theatres and destined to delight waiting opera lovers.

It’s Norburn’s ninth concert-play in 10 years of exploring the genre and snorkelling beneath musical surfaces spanning early Medieval to this the second half of the 19th Century. It’s the most commercial thing she has done. Watch out for it. And CarmenCo.

Richard Amey

Norburn’s work in early music can be seen in ‘Secret Life of Carols’, an event in candlelight with animation at St Andrew’s Road in Church Road, Hove, on December 21 (7.30pm). Her band The Telling bring Medieval Christmas music and carols from Finland, Germany, Austria, France and Catalonia. Line-up: Clare Norburn, voice; Ariana Prussner, voice & percussion; Kaisa Pulkkinen, harps; Kate Anderson, animation.

Tickets on the door or (£16/£12 concessions) from https://secret-life-of-carols-hove.eventbrite.co.uk

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