13 February 2018

Carmen 1808 at Union Theatre was a bold experiment that really worked

Carmen is probably my favourite opera, it ought to be given the number of times that I have seen it, so I was always going to be interested in seeing Carmen 1808 at Union Theatre, particularly as it was at Union Theatre where I had seen so many excellent musical shows and it was by The Phil Willmott Company of which the same is true.

There was only one date in the run that I could make which made the decision easier and I duly booked myself a place for 13 February for £22.5.

The evening did not get off to a good start and a late running meeting meant that I missed the usual 5:43 train from Teddington which would have got me there spot on 6:30 when the box office opened. Instead I caught a train soon after 6pm and got there at 6:45pm. That put me in the third batch for entry, the first time ever that I had not been in the first.

Then my luck changed and despite my late admittance to the theatre I was still able to claim a place in the front row.

The first thing that struck me was the similarity to the stage design for Heartbreak House, which was understandable as it was in the same season. There were differences but the basic design of a raised section in the middle and steps up on both sides was the same.

Carmen 1808 was billed as a musical rather than an opera and running at ninety minutes straight through it was considerably shorter than the opera so I had no real idea what to expect. Admittedly I could have read the details online beforehand but doing that is almost cheating.

I am sure that there is a word for this that I do not know but Carmen 1808 was a companion piece to Carmen sharing some of the characters, locations,  themes and songs but it was also had a very different plot. More than a homage but less than a remake. Somebody should do a Venn Diagram.

The main story was about Napoleon's victory over Spain and the efforts of the resistance. Alongside that we still had the love triangle/square/pentagram between Carmen, a soldier, a woman from his past and Carmen's other lovers. There were several other elements from the original Carmen, like the reading of the cards. All nice to see if you knew Carmen but also understandable if it was new to you.

The music followed the same plan, some songs were copied and changed along the way. Toreador had to be in there and it appear as a song about swearing allegiance to the Spanish flag. There was no toreador.

The singing was more musical than opera with many pieces using the whole cast and there were fewer solo pieces. Toreador was an example of this, in the opera just the toreador sings the song but here it was everybody. There were some solos though and the painter/narrator was the star here.

One thing that worked very well was using the overture as a big dance number to open the show and to reprise it at the end. I also loved the comic song that was inserted along the way. This was the one time that the French featured and they told us in song just how good they were. The song produced my favourite line of the night, "Did we mensh, we are French?".

Carmen 1808 was a nice mix of a dark story, France's subjugation of Spain, with the light human foibles that drive so much of life, particularly when there are people like Carmen around. And being a new story I was keen to see how it ended. I was engrossed.

The concept of changing something as familiar as Carmen into a musical and playing around with it so much may sound sacrilegious but it really worked and I had a lot of fun watching it unfold in front of me.

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