Bizet’s masterpiece charts a good guy’s descent into sexual obsession and jealous madness at the hands of a hell-cat who has no reason to like men. Back at ENO for its first revival, Calixto Bieito’s much-travelled staging of Carmen zooms in on sex as lowest common denominator. This time round, its currency value and fitful arousal doesn’t seem quite so bleak and feral, but it still offers a squalid appraisal of those at the bottom of the heap, where no-one was ever innocent, and it’s really worth seeing.
The production’s strength is its directness, with those ‘Les Mis’-type moments when mass chorus gatherings at the footlights seem about to jump into the stalls. There are also no frills – the biggest event is the gathering of a fleet of clapped-out Mercs for the Act Three smugglers’ hide-out. Otherwise it’s down to a stage empty but for a flag-pole or a filthy telephone kiosk; the bar in Act Two is a crate of beer in the boot of one of those cars. Countering the women’s hideous 1970s’ clothes flagging up instant sexual availability is the men’s oppressive, violent muscularity and nudity.
Bieito offers a few wistful glimpses of old-fashioned Spanish nobility in the naked man doing an erotic dream-dance of a bullfight at the start of Act Three or the little girl throwing a few faltering flamenco shapes, but it’s the familiar huge Osbourne bull-silhouette advertising-hoarding that you remember. A neat, very Bieito touch is another muscular, near-naked man at the start of Act One running round the stage (as some sort of military punishment) till he drops, creating the arena of punishment that encloses Carmen and José at the opera’s conclusion.
In her first Carmen, the Lithuanian mezzo Justina Gringyte certainly looked the part in whichever clinging costume she wore. Her voice, though, was dominated by a hardness rather than elemental sensuality, and she didn’t command that vital stand-alone presence that makes Carmen so dangerous. As José, the American tenor Eric Cutler has a commanding lyric voice, which he used with considerable accomplishment. His ‘Flower Song’ raised the emotional temperature and level of intimacy in Act Two, and despite some awkward acting his singing was a fine expression of José’s mania and misery. Their dips into the much-cut spoken dialogue were jarring and out of character, and also drew attention to the rather refined translation.
A much clearer idea of Bieito’s directorial intent came from the excellent Eleanor Dennis’s beautifully sung, interestingly forward and knowing Micaëla. Also completely at one with the production, Leigh Melrose characterised his spivvy Escamillo brilliantly in the Toreador’s song and offered a masterclass in how to load words with meaning.
Rhian Lewis and Clare Presland vamped up the fortune-telling scene in style as Frasquita and Mercédès, one of them saddled with a very young daughter who had already seen more than any child should see, and there was an impressively macho Moralès from George Humphreys. The ENO Chorus was firing on all cylinders. Richard Armstrong’s conducting cannily supplied the variety, intimacy and atmospheric depth that is often not Bieito’s primary concern and the ENO Orchestra responded with some fine playing.
- 13 further performances until July 3
- Further details here www.eno.org/whats-on/carmen
- Cinema relay on July 1