Let’s assert straightaway that the playing and singing in this first revival of Barrie Kosky’s Carmen (unleashed in February this year) are very impressive, holding the ear across the evening. No weak links in the vocal chain and fine, vigorous conducting from Keri-Lynn Wilson prioritise orchestral delights with additional music reclaimed in Michael Rot’s edition. Had this production made a similar impact visually, its three hours might have sailed by – as it is I longed for Carmen to be killed off at the end of Act Two – so restless did I feel about this over-animated opera-meets-music-theatre extravaganza.
Apart from prompting fond recollections of previous productions (not all memorable) I began to wonder if directors sometimes simply ignore what’s in front of them which, in the case of Bizet, is sublime music and a timeless tale of jealous love. No doubt because Carmen presents familiar territory, Kosky (and revival director Alan Barnes) has replaced scenery and any sense of location with a stage-filling staircase (beautifully lit by Joachim Klein) that doubles in Katrin Lea Tag’s imagination as a cigarette factory, mountain refuge and bullring. References to Spain are only evident in costumes. Otherwise, this staging could belong to a cabaret venue in Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin with Carmen almost re-imagined as Sally Bowles – accompanied by a bewildering wash of wriggling and writhing movement from the augmented chorus, its vaudeville-style presentation having all the glamour of a nervous disorder associated with St Vitus. Elegant it is not, and by the end the prancing has all but lost any purpose other than as an ironic foil to the tragedy unfolding. The director’s obsession for motion is a major distraction. Chief amongst these meddling offences is the ruin of the Act Two Quintet – one of the score’s great ensemble moments, fabulous music that can stand on its own without being trampled on by redundant spectacle with echoes of Britain’s Got Talent. Also redundant is the over-amplified spoken narrative from a disembodied Carmen duplicating what we already know and interrupting the dramatic impetus. Whether or not you’ll like the end – a coup de théâtre – is anyone’s guess.
Gaëlle Arquez (replacing an indisposed Ksenia Dudnikova) excels as Carmen whose first entry is arresting, if not dramatic, dressed in a gorilla suit (Marlene Dietrich-style) and adding to her self-portrait (as if we couldn’t fathom this out for ourselves) that she’s an untamed and dangerous beast. She can certainly sing as her well-projected, smouldering vocalism makes clear. She commands the stage too, as does Eleonora Buratto’s ardent Micaëla who underlines simple peasant emotions in a touching Act Three soliloquy – silencing an audience of coughers who had earlier trashed a beautifully played Entr’acte. Brian Jagde impresses as the besotted Don José, his voice finding richer expression as his desperation intensifies, and Alexander Vinogradov makes a snappily-dressed Escamillo, whose cavernous bass-baritone opens out like a Christmas port. Other parts are no-less characterised (Haegee Lee’s Frasquita and Aigul Akhmetshina’s Mercédès are convincing) and the Chorus is on top form with children’s voices ringing out clearly.