Bizet’s Carmen is one of the most enduringly popular 19th century operas.
However, the underlying theme isn’t always clearly brought out. Carmen, a cigarette factory worker, asserts her right to make free sexual choices in the same way as men.
She has an affair with army officer Don Jose, then abandons him in favour of Escamillo, the bullfighter.
In the final scene, Don Jose murders her in a fit of jealous rage.
It is interesting to compare this narrative with two classic 19th century novels, French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Madame Bovary, a middle class woman, seeks to escape from a suffocating provincial marriage by having an affair with a rakish landowner.
Anna Karenina, an aristocrat, attempts to escape from her self-righteous upper class civil servant husband through an affair with the dashing young Count Vronsky.
Both heroines end up committing suicide.
Of course, such women stood to lose everything that counted in their world.
But then Carmen, a working class, Gypsy woman also takes an enormous risk.
For example, to have become pregnant would have severely curtailed her chances of a respectable marriage.
Carmen has been traditionally pilloried as a heartless vamp, a femme fatale who breaks men’s hearts without pity.
But by pitting herself against a repressive capitalist morality, she reveals herself to be as brave and independent as her middle or upper class counterparts.
Sally potter’s new production of Carmen is eye-catching and enjoyable but ultimately misses the point of the opera.
Opening with CCTV footage of dark alleyways and hooded figures slinking in doorways projected onto the stage, the Spanish soldiers of the opera are portrayed as modern-day armed police with their Big Brother paraphernalia.
What could have been an interesting motif is then dropped for the rest of the production.
The staging goes even more seriously wrong with Carmen and her co-workers shown as prostitutes.
The opera portrays them as bolshy and sexually provocative. To reinterpret them in this way demeans them and turns Carmen from a free spirit into a sexual manipulator.
Another crucial element of the plot is undermined when Carmen and her Gypsy community are presented as members of the criminal underclass.
However, the singing is overall very good with Katie Van Kooten as Michaela particularly outstanding. The orchestra play with passion and excitement throughout.
Directed by Sally Potter
Coliseum Theatre, London
Until 23 November