English National Opera – Bizet’s Carmen – Ginger Costa-Jackson, Sean Panikkar & Carri-Ann Williams; directed by Calixto Bieito; conducted by Kerem Hasan

Bizet

Carmen – Opéra-comique in four Acts to a libretto by Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy after the novella by Prosper Mérimée [Sung in English to a translation by Christopher Cowell with English surtitles]

Carmen — Ginger Costa-Jackson
Don José — Sean Panikkar
Micaëla — Carri-Ann Williams
Escamillo – Nmon Ford
Zuniga — Keel Watson
Moralès — Christopher Nairne
Frasquita — Ellie Laugharne
Mercédès — Niamh O’Sullivan
Dancaïro – Matthew Durkan
Remendado – Innocent Masuku
Lillas Pastia – Dean Street

English National Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Kerem Hasan

Calixto Bieito – Director
Jamie Manton – Revival Director
Alfons Flores – Set Designer
Mercè Paloma – Costume Designer
Bruno Poet – Lighting Designer


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 9 February, 2023
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Having now been seen in various place around Europe, and receiving its third revival at English National Opera, Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen still conveys the opera’s visceral, raw passions afresh without resort to glamourising its violence or stereotyping its Andalusian spirit. Rather, it is only the somewhat prissily banal English translation by Christopher Cowell (in the context, something more idiomatically piquant or slang, and which scans better with Bizet’s rhythms wouldn’t have gone amiss) and Jamie Manton’s revival direction (with its gestures towards mindless cabaret or even Carry On lewdness) that dampens its searing temper and querying take on this work, so readily adopted as a quintessential expression of the Spanish temperament, both within that country and beyond.

Otherwise, Bieito’s innate vision and ideas remain unsentimental but energetic, targeting effectively the laddish, unruly behaviour of the soldiers and the equally knowing, goading overtures of the female tobacco factory workers, as these groups lure and tease each other. The modern world (of the 1970s, at the end of the Franco regime, in this case) is suggested – but not fetishised – by the presence of a telephone booth in Act One, and the various cars which appear subsequently, providing an apt counterpoint to the opera’s background setting which is often seen as a merely exotic, harmless throwback to an era and place untouched by the restraining forces of urban, industrialised civilisation.  The swigging out of bottles, and carousing around those cars by the partygoers at Lillas Pastia’s also surely suggests the age of mass tourism in the Costas, more than it does any traditional Andalusian inn. And ”José” pronounced throughout this performance with an English ‘j’ rather than something between an ‘h’ and ‘y’ sounds like something that might be overhead on a Ryanair flight to Malaga. But the vaguely abstract choreography generally, without the paraphernalia of everyday life, works well within the arena of what is essentially a bull ring on stage – especially in the first and final Acts – mimicking the unseen fight that the toreador Escamillo leads at the end as the backdrop to Carmen’s stabbing.

If anything it is Ginger Costa-Jackson who somewhat underplays the title role in her comparatively subdued acting, engaging and flirting with the soldiers very little in her famous habanera.  Her deep, throaty singing seems to mean to be seductive and emotive, but it issues more as a declamation, and her “tra la las” and vocalise to Don José in Act Two almost become a yodel with their swoops. Sean Panikkar is a much more consummate singer and actor by comparison, though his generous vibrato is slightly pinched. But the firm body of tone at the centre of his voice expresses the corporal’s sincere, naïve affection at first – for his mother as well as Carmen – and subsequently his desperate, intoxicated obsession with the latter.

Carri-Ann Williams is a somewhat dowdy Micaëla, even if the contrast between her conscientious nature and Carmen’s wayward character is apt. Other parts tend to be declaimed rather than sung, almost in the fashion of a musical. Keel Watson barely tries to sing, rendering the role of Zuniga as a peripheral figure of caricature instead of a dramatically potent foreshadowing of Don José’s fate as an emotional victim of Carmen. Nmon Ford’s strong vocal production characterises Escamillo’s preening when he first appears, but lacks musicality.

Kerem Hasan conducts the ENO Orchestra in a performance that rightly blisters and burns in its fervour and animation. It does sometimes also plod as the tension lessens, but robust, pulsing rhythms elsewhere propel the score’s most distinctive numbers with suitable heat and fury, alongside some moments of ravishing tenderness. The Chorus – including that of children as the street ‘urchins’ – are well disciplined musically whilst bringing much colour and activity to the stage.

The production still has much to offer those who have not seen it previously. But those who have will find Bieito’s sharp observational edges now somewhat blunted.

Further performances to February 24

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