La Tragédie de Carmen


“I am looking for a soldier, Don Jose?”

A review by Jess Wolfe

Asylum is a disused Grade-II listed chapel in Peckham, within easy walking distance of the Queens Road Peckham overground station. It was a little difficult to find once I was off the train as it is through a very average housing estate and then inside the Caroline Gardens complex. This was not at all where I was expecting to find an opera in an old chapel. I actually ended up going in through the back door, but I left through the front which is an impressive columned area and I don’t quite know how I missed it!

The impressive entrance leads into an equally impressive, and rather apt, space. Each ticket included a free drink with entry and there were a few options: wine, beer, water etc. The audience were then invited to take their seats; the seats are all level and the stage is rather low and some of the major action takes place on the floor, so I would recommend sitting close to the front for the best view.

This is not a polished opera hall with a curtain and plush seats (the word ‘disused’ is not an exaggeration); this is a crumbling, chilly (do bring a jacket), wooden-stooled chapel which is absolutely beautiful. The hall is lit by strings of fairy lights along the walls which gives the whole place a romantic air and an ambience of something amazing about to happen.

And something amazing did! La Tragedie de Carmen is probably one of the most well-known operas (if I’ve heard of it, it has to be!) and I was pleasantly surprised by how many of the songs I had heard before, such as Habanera, but never knew where they were from. This version was set against the backdrop of the Great War which fitted the space perfectly.

I didn’t entirely understand everything that was happening because it’s all sung in French but the general message of the pieces was captioned on the screen behind the performers so whilst I couldn’t follow the exact words I knew the general gist of what was happening. The singing was powerful, and incredible, enough to convey the tone of the songs without the words anyway – every time Don Jose sang I had goose bumps – and the silences and expressions of the performers were equally compelling.

The screen was also used very cleverly, allowing performances in silhouette to accompany or set up the action on the small stage at the front. They also projected some video footage from the war onto it to great effect, particularly during Escamillo’s moving rendition of the Toreador song. The entire production was unbelievably poignant for such a small space, with no real scenery and maybe three props. The singing and the performers were phenomenal, and it is quite extraordinary what the Pop Up Opera managed to accomplish.