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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 17 August 2018

‘Carmen’ opens to a full house at London’s Royal Opera House

Gareth Browne enjoys a dramatic restaging of Bizet’s tragic tale, produced
in collaboration with Abu Dhabi Festival

The staging and interpretation was minimal, but the performance was bold. Courtesy Bill Cooper
The staging and interpretation was minimal, but the performance was bold. Courtesy Bill Cooper

Georges Bizet’s Carmen is the opera that everyone knows, even if they think they don’t. It’s a love story, topped with jealousy and angst, and packed with songs familiar even to operatic first-timers.

This is not an opera one can just passively observe – it’s an assault on the senses and demands your unwavering attention for the entire three-and-a-half-hour duration.

The trademark aria Habanera jolts the audience, as a wall of sound from Les Toreadors, hits even those up in the upper circle. There is also the tragic murder of the title character by her supposed loved one in the final act. In the context of endless assault scandals, bought to light by the #MeToo campaign, in some regards, this 17th-century opera is more relevant than ever.

Maverick director Barrie Kosky’s production opened at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden on Tuesday, to coincide with the first day of Abu Dhabi Festival’s programme of international commissions and events. This bold new Carmen is a collaboration between the Abu Dhabi Festival and the British institution.

Opera can be an intimidating experience for those attending for the first time, but this performance was anything but that. Kosky has made an epic enjoyably accessible, but he doesn’t patronise – something the opening night’s full house attested to.

If Alex Beard, the Royal Opera House’s chief executive was nervous an hour before the opening show, he did not show it. Some traditionalists are sceptical of such modern takes on classics such as Carmen, but “bringing such a radical reinterpretation of the classic to somewhere like this, is always exciting”, he told The National.

Carmen is a piece that never developed an authoritative version, [Georges] Bizet died too young. There are at least five regularly performed editions, so we’ve taken elements of all of those, and incorporated them into ours,” he explains.

“What is an unchanging obligation, is to take great works such as Carmen, and invite the very greatest artists from each generation to shine their light on what Carmen can bring to an audience. That’s what we’re committed to do”.

The staging is notably minimalist, a large bank of steps, a rope, and a small offering of flower petals, but as Beard points out: “what happens in that space is maximalist”.

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Such collaboration between the Abu Dhabi Festival and the Royal Opera House harks back to 2012, and has grown in the years since, and as the festival continues through February and March, an exceptionally high cultural bar has been set. Beard adds: “We are hoping to shine a light on the Abu Dhabi Festival itself from here – the most outward looking and diverse city in the world – London.”

While Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, artistic director of Abu Dhabi Festival told The National: “When we create together, work together, commission together – it’s endless what we can do”.

“These collaborations contribute to Abu Dhabi’s cultural vision, asserting the capital as among the greatest supporters of global creative expression”, she added. Also in attendance was Sulaiman Al Mazroui, ambassador of the UAE to the United Kingdom, who said: “It’s a fantastic occasion to showcase Abu Dhabi. It shows that the UAE is taking art and culture seriously”.

Abu Dhabi Festival continues until February 19, as Nicola Benedetti and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment take to the Emirates Palace auditorium

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