sun 14/07/2024

Carmen, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Carmen, English National Opera

Carmen, English National Opera

Broad brushstrokes and big voices in Calixto Bieito's pacey but half-cooked Bizet

Justina Gringyte as the car girl All images by Alastair Muir for ENO

Crotch-grabbing, suggestions of oral and anal sex, stylized punching and kicking and other casual violence offer diminishing returns in your standard Calixto Bieito production. Sometimes a scene or two flashes focused brilliance, which only makes you wonder why he doesn’t apply the same rigour throughout.

His 17-year-old Carmen has more such fitful insights than most of his other shows, and they’re very much complemented here by assured conducting and singing to make this punchy edition of Bizet’s amazing score, shorn of most of its dialogue, flash past at an energetic and colourful pace in its second run at ENO.

Even so, I'd challenge anyone to read a rather cheeky programme note interpreting Bieito’s production points and find much that tallied in the performance. Late Franco era? Chances are that won't be clear. The point of the Lillas Pastia figure, an innkeeper whose car is his bar, tottering drunkenly on at curtain-up to Carmen’s own fateful music? The borderland wasteland-plus-beach location? Didn’t come across to me. And centrally flawed, surely, is the notion of Carmen as nothing but victim; in her final confrontation with a jealousy-maddened José, she needs to be proud and frightened simultaneously, not just teetering around terrified.

Justina Gringyte and Eric Cutler in ENO CarmenYes, I buy the Romany girl as a bottle-blonde eastern European immigrant (albeit anachronistically located in the 1970s) with an outsider’s accent. Bieito’s first Carmen at ENO, Ruxandra Donose, was Romanian, and Justina Gringyte hails from Lithuania, but neither comes close to the proud, inflammatory sensuality of Latvian Elina Garanča, the only Carmen I’ve ever seen to convince on a stage and a bit too pricey for ENO. Our heroine needs to be her own person much more than someone who seems compelled to put it about a lot for cash.

Gringyte has a vibrant, metally tone, a true mezzo, but needs to refine it, as the lighter Donose could, for the French suavity rife in Bizet’s version of Spain. Any Opéra Comique elements, such as the needlepoint quintet in Act Two, have to be sacrificed to Coliseum size, and there’s not a great deal of refinement anywhere, though Richard Armstrong’s conducing has dash and a confidence born of long-term experience even while it lacks a bit of rhythmic precision.

Impressive voices do fit the four main roles, though. This time we have a José of impeccable tenorial style in Eric Cutler (pictured above with Gringyte in Act Two), singing the much-debated top B flat in the Flower Song very quietly in head voice, as the score asks, and letting rip in the anguish of the last two acts, but with a finesse that should make his forthcoming Florestan and Lohengrin worth hearing.

Eleanor Dennis and George Humphreys in ENO CarmenEleanor Dennis (pictured left with George Humphreys' strong Corporal Moralès) is almost as impressive as the first of Bieito’s Micaëlas, the glorious Elizabeth Llewellyn, equally at home in long lyric-dramatic phrases, though she has to try and pull off the director’s tricky characterization of a come-hither, stand-back girl from the provinces.

Fellow Scot - half-Scot, to be precise - Leigh Melrose returns as Escamillo, delivering a superbly energized Toreador Song with ringing top-note bravado; probably not his fault if the offstage repeat in the next act was virtually in a different key from the orchestra last night.

By then the visual impact of Alfons Flores’s geographically indeterminate set – and is it day or night in the outer acts, where bright lights sit ill with pocket-camera flashes? – has gone up several notches. There are two Mercedes in Act Two, the character as spiritedly sung by Clare Presland and one with an engine to thump on – and six in Act Three, enough to evoke the smugglers’ lair more vividly than you’ll ever have seen it before (though the women have no costume change, suggesting they’ve come straight on from Lillas Pastia’s zone before the interval), and no time for Carmen's brief liaison with José to sour). Queasy as it is, I don’t find it gratuitous that Merc’s pretty-in-pink, clearly abused daughter should be part of the package for the customs men.

Come the extra-bullring denouement, and Bieito reverts to convention, though rather beautifully – switching with the help of Bruno Poet’s ever versatile lighting from a raucous, waving crowd scene to Escamillo alone in toreador garb singing of his love for glammed-up Carmen. The final scene is predictably set within another ring of chalk; no surprises here and good, straightforward singing. You’ll not be bored, but don’t expect much finesse. That you'll probably get at Glyndebourne, an arena more fit for Bizet's crucial intimacies.

In her final confrontation with a jealousy-maddened José, Carmen needs to be proud and frightened simultaneously, not just teetering around terrified


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Watched this ( well, partly, anyhow) via beamed cinema Thought it was awful - done on a shoe-string obviously- dark dismal, overtly sexual. Not nice at all. Players so-so but NOT outstanding. Direction seemed to be done by a lunatic on a bad day - no continuity. Up-dating the era did definitely NOT work in this instance. WHO was the dismal looking child hovering about in many scenes? Very disconcerting and, in fact, disturbing. My daughter and I did not bother to return after the interval. Found better things to do - ie. go home and go to bed - far more interesting than this dismal performance.

well said. it was appaulling

'WHO was the dismal looking child hovering about in many scenes?' I must agree with you - was she a future Carmen? Don't get me wrong I love different takes on classics. (Carmen Jones was amazing). But billed as coming to the end of Franco's era?I got the Osborne sherry bull billboard (a symbol of Andalucia) collapsing and the arena scenes with sand and rope; but if bullfighter Escamillo was dressed like Frank Sinatra. Why didn't they make him a pop star? I found the time and the place of the setting so unclear (selfies? Christmas tree? No self-respecting woman would ever take a handbag to the corrida) - transient moves from the 50s to now. The place? Barcelona, (was this a nod to Catalan Bieto?) Malaga and Seville? These confusions distracted from Richard Armstrong's score and the blonde Lithuanian mezzo-soprano so much that it all became fuzzy. I did think that the chorus was great - the crowd scenes were choreographed excellently. But I have experienced better versions of Carmen from village operatic groups in Spain itself.

Read the review. It seemed clear to me - eventually - that she was Mercedes' traumatised daughter, being put out to sell to the customs officers in Act 3. As I wrote, much else wasn't clear, least of all that there was supposed to be a beach (Gibraltar or around?) In Bieito's Boris Godunov there is also an abused child, the Inn Hostess's daughter.

I also watched the live screened performance and, while finding parts of it disturbing, it was also very powerful. It gave me a lot to think about and prompted me to see the main characters in a different way. The modern setting was very interesting, but I'm not sure that the overtly sexual content of the performance added much to it. I found this interpretation both dramatic and moving and seeing it up close through the camera's eye gave me a much closer viewpoint than in the theatre. It is stimulating when the arts challenge your thinking. I'm glad I saw this production.

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