Calixto Bieito’s direct and disturbing Carmen is now in its second revival. First shown at The Coliseum in 2012 (and much travelled since its launch thirteen years earlier at the Peralada Festival), this testosterone-fuelled production is set somewhere in Spain in the post Franco era. There’s nothing cosy here or anything to suggest sun-drenched, castanet-playing exotica. Instead, this Carmen inhabits a destructive realm of abuse, crime and sexual infatuation.
Alfons Flores’s minimal staging allows us plenty of opportunity to reflect on Bieito’s macho and provocative interpretation. His grim world pursues a relentless fascination with brutality from its opening parade-ground scene where a sadistic Moralès portrayed by a compelling Alex Otterburn (captivating as Eddy in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek for Scottish Opera in 2017) orders a near-naked soldier to run round a mostly bare stage carrying his rifle until he collapses – a neat portent of Carmen’s own violent end. Scant decoration is provided in Act One by a flag-pole and a telephone kiosk against which sex-starved squaddies variously urinate or attempt to trash. Empty spaces leave room for a battered Mercedes with a beer-filled boot evoking Lillas Pastia’s bar in Act Two and a small fleet of cars resembling a second-hand car lot does for the smuggler’s den in Act Three, dominated initially by the iconic Osbourne bull-silhouette. The bull ring in the Fourth Act is just a chalk circle within which a colourfully dressed ENO chorus and enthusiastic children sing with tremendous élan.
Reprising her 2015 Carmen, Lithuanian mezzo Justina Grinytė is mostly convincing as a seductive femme fatale but with some variable singing and little sense of the gipsy about her. After an unyielding ‘Habanera’ (sung whilst dumping a lover on the telephone) she delivered a finely spun ‘Seguidilla’, now richly varied in timbre and portraying a wonderfully insolent temptress. As the besotted Don José, American tenor Sean Panikkar was the real thing, giving a sharply focused performance that clearly delineated his gradual descent from mild mannered officer to rejected and volatile lover. His bright, jewel-like tone coursed through his scenes with Micaëla and Carmen, including an impassioned ‘Flower Song’, gaining in intensity for his final desperate pleas where his singing tore at the heart in its emotional power.
Ashley Riches’s suave and grey suited Escamillo was more of a mixed affair, singing valiantly during his opening Toreador song but clearly at full stretch against the orchestra. He fared better in the combative duet with Don José, now vocally more authoritative and with a chemistry elsewhere missing with both Carmen and Micaëla. She was taken by a full throated Nardus Williams, making her ENO debut. I couldn’t quite reconcile Bizet’s demur peasant girl with the confident, not so innocent woman revealed here, and her Act Three ‘Je dis que rien’ had earnestness to spare but a less-is-more approach would have brought dividends and her intonation might then have been less questionable too.
A loutish Keel Watson brought plenty to heft to Zuniga and the fortune-telling scene enjoyed impressive movement and singing from Ellie Laugharne and Samantha Price as Frasquita and Mercédès. The Chorus added considerable weight, the children were excellent and the ENO orchestra under Valentina Peleggi’s expansive gestures gave a solid account, periodically illuminating Bizet’s lavish score.