English National Opera – Calixto Bieito directs Carmen

Carmen – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy after the novella by Prosper Mérimée [sung in an English translation by Christopher Cowell, with English subtitles]

Carmen – Ruxandra Donose
José – Adam Diegel
Escamillo – Leigh Melrose
Micaëla – Elizabeth Llewellyn
Zuniga – Graeme Danby
Moralès – Duncan Rock
Frasquita – Rhian Lois
Mercédès – Madeleine Shaw
Dancairo – Geoffrey Dolton
Remendado – Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Lillas Pastia – Dean Street

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Ryan Wigglesworth

Calixto Bieito – Director
Alfons Flores – Set designs [realised by Kieron Docherty]
Mercè Paloma – Costume designs
Bruno Poet – Lighting design

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 21 November, 2012
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Carmen, English National Opera, November 2012Bad boy Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen is rather like being pestered by an aggressive drunk, with the possibility of things turning very nasty. This two-year-old staging grew from the one he made for the Peralada Festival in 1999, and has travelled widely before coming to London.

Forget castanets and Hispanic prettification. The most decorative things in Alfons Flores’s set are a telefono kiosk where we get our first sight of Carmen, visible but set apart, and a flag-pole to which she is tied and against which people have sex. Otherwise, it’s an open, sand-strewn space, with room for a fleet of clapped-out 1970s’ Mercedes that do duty for Lillas Pastia’s bar and for the smugglers’ camp. In Act Three, the stage is dominated by the iconic Osbourne bull, once used to advertise a brandy and still looming on Spanish hillsides, as definingly Spanish as Jerusalem is English.

Carmen, English National Opera, November 2012Bieito subverts expectations, not surprisingly. His soldiers and factory-workers are right at the bottom of the heap, the trailer-trash of Spain, dressed in awful 1970s clothes, whose main connection to their Spanish values and history is to debase even further their tourist tackiness – as when Frasquita and Mercédès put on flouncy flamenco gowns as part of the smuggling scam and look, and behave, like men in particularly lurid drag.

Bieito has a special way of trading in the basics of human motivation and doesn’t hold back on pointless, perfunctory lust. Like Almodovar, Bieito is not afraid of sentimentality, as when a naked male dancer relives the ancient thrill and mystery of bullfighting (now, of course, banned) in the shadow of the huge bull silhouette, which is then brutally dismantled – you do wonder what today’s Spaniards make of this persistent, overtly politicised rubbishing of their values. And he’s not afraid of clunking symbolism. During the opening, another naked (well, near-naked) man – there’s no shortage of buffed, non-singing torsos to ramp up the testosterone – runs round and round in a circle till he drops as some sort of military punishment, and it’s that same circle that at the end traps Carmen.

Carmen, English National Opera, November 2012Yet, for all its bleak, ugly and negative view on humanity, Bieito here has been almost restrained, certainly compared with earlier productions. Opera’s very own Tarantino has been sparing with the wealth of detail that’s usually difficult to see – there are the signature bashed-up cars, the vile clothes, the tatty artificial tree with fairy lights – but when he goes into props detail – as when José goes through Carmen’s handbag before slitting her throat – the effect is really shocking, and his big gestures, such as the giant bull silhouette, were no less powerful and, in the end, sympathetic.

As Carmen, Ruxandra Donose suits Bieito’s take very well. As a tart with no great expectations of life, this feral, compulsively manipulative Carmen was like a heat-seeking missile, seeking whom she may destroy, then moving on. Donose’s stillness and self-possession were like an invisible shield, setting her apart from the chaos she creates and defined from the start by a low-key, almost meditative ‘Habañera’. You always want, and hardly ever get, Carmen to be a force of nature, and Donose gets pretty close, especially with the sadness underlying her fiery, so-called free spirit – very much a case of the girl can’t help it.

Bieito’s direction faltered initially in defining José’s massive conflictions, and this was compounded by Adam Siegel’s dry, pitch-variable and pressured singing, but, in a production that often looked like a particularly unbuttoned uniform night at a sleazy gay club, he certainly looked the part. In the second half, though, Siegel really took off vocally and dramatically, and was terrific in the last Act.Elizabeth Llewellyn sang Micaëla beautifully, but the role wasn’t directed to suggest a strong enough alternative to Carmen’s oozing sexuality. Leigh Melrose delivered a wonderfully spivvy, darkly sung Escamillo, and the sight of him at the end of the ‘March of the Toreadors’, alone in his bullfighter’s lights, was an unforgettable bit of direction – and the march itself was very well done.

Rhian Lewis and Madeleine Shaw were an impressive double-act as Frasquita and Mercédès, Duncan Rock was a neat piece of work as a butched-up, well-sung Moralès and Graeme Danby filed out the role of Zuniga with conviction.Most of Christopher Cowell’s fluent translation came over strongly, though some of the dialogue got swallowed up, and his occasional dip into rhyming couplets worked well. Ryan Wigglesworth conducted with a keen ear for pace, atmosphere and colour, and the orchestral playing served Bizet’s stunning score with distinction. Bieito’s Carmen may not be beautiful but it works.

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