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Creating Carmen (Susan Elkin reviews)

Creating Carmen

St George’s Church, Kemp Town, Brighton

One of those shows which you can’t pigeonhole neatly, Clare Norburn’s thoughtful, intelligent Creating Carmen is part play, part concert and part discursive essay. And it makes for a pretty riveting evening.

Bizet’s famous 1875 masterpiece was based on a novella by Prosper Merimee published thirty years earlier. Norburn presents the author (Robin Soans) in his study neurotically trying to retain control of his creation, a sexily exotic gypsy named Carmen (in the form of Suzanne Ahmet)  as she  taunts, haunts, cajoles and controls him.  He is variously rueful, irascible, annoyed and troubled because the book is not going as he wants it to. We are led to reflect on the process of a writer’s art and to ask who is creating whom. The wittiest moment – in a piece which is full of cleverness and ingenuity – comes near the end when Merimee has decided she must die and stabs her. It doesn’t work and when she moves we see that he has been trying to stab her in the back with his pen.

The underlying dramatic irony is that the play assumes that everyone in the room knows about Bizet’s opera but, of course, Merimee doesn’t. His creation tells him it will happen but he refuses to believe her. “Someone beginning with B” she tells him at one point. “Not that dreadful friend of Delacroix, Berlioz?” he replies. In the end she mentions Bizet but tells Merimee not to worry about it because at the moment the composer is still only a child of seven.

And then of course there’s the music which is, effectively, the leading character in the drama. The piece, which is touring, was commissioned by CarmenCo, a trio consisting of husband and wife Emily Andrews (flute and mezzo soprano) guitarist Francesco Correa with guitarist David Massey. The quality of the playing – which ranges from Carmen itself to arrangements of  de Falla, Roderigo, Ravel, Roderigo and more is exquisite. Massey’s solo work is show-stopping and I loved the arrangement for two guitars and flute of de Falla’s La Vida Breve.

Emily Andrews sings several Carmen numbers in role as the musical Carmen of the future. Clearly a multi-talented performer, as well as being a fine flautist she has a rich mezzo voice and a great deal of dramatic presence – along with a rare gift of blankness when she is simply sitting aside the action holding her flute. She’s no slouch on castanets either.

All the music is played off-book so there’s an unusual sense of cohesion as these three players communicate continuously with each other with eyes and bodies. The result is a delightfully warm, intimate sound.

Directed by Nicholas Renton and lit by Natalie Roland this interesting production sat neatly in front of the altar in the

Georgian elegance of St George’s Church, Kemp Town in Brighton. The chancel step provided a quasi-natural raised area and the use of candles felt absolutely right. That and  the warm acoustic made the music as atmospheric – a Frenchman dreaming of Spain –  as it could possibly be.

First published by Lark Reviews: https://www.larkreviews.co.uk/?p=5722

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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