Scottish Opera’s new Carmen begins at the end. ‘Take me away: I have killed her,’ intones a voiceover and as the prelude swaggers out, José is in a police interrogation cell, where an investigator is attempting to piece together his story. In other words, it’s CSI: Seville. In converting Meilhac and Halévy’s libretto into a police procedural, director John Fulljames has created a Carmen that’s ideally gauged to a TV-literate audience: told in flashback, with any confusion swiftly cleared up by spoken dialogue that never feels clunky because interrogation is central to the genre.
And unless you want to be surprised by the dénouement, it works a treat. Is that whopping spoiler really such a big deal? I’m in two minds: Opera subscribers might roll their eyes, but a significant proportion of any given opera audience will inevitably comprise first-timers. Of course the cliché-busting updated Carmen is itself one of contemporary opera’s great clichés. Barring Ellen Kent’s touring productions (she boasted that every orange tree on stage bore genuine Seville oranges), I’ve never actually seen a Carmen set in 19th-century Spain. It’s been tracksuit bottoms, greasy sideburns and plastic chairs all the way. True to form, Fulljames’s smugglers are gun-running terrorists and the soldiers are incompetent but brutal security guards.
But Fulljames is far too skilled a director to make these familiar gambits feel routine. Since we already know where we’re going, he harnesses the strengths of his cast to make the journey as compelling as possible – a process that gets a long way on a central pairing as magnetic as Justina Gringyte (Carmen) and Alok Kumar (José). Gringyte’s voice is as smokey and as insinuating as it was in ENO’s 2020 revival of Carmen (Calixto Bieito: 1970s leisurewear, sleazy dive-bars, etc) but it seems to have grown even more satisfyingly rich and dark in the bottom register.