Georges Bizet received hostile reviews of “Carmen” in 1875. Critics saw it as a radical opera that opposed the traditions of Paris and Opéra-Comique, where it was first performed, whilst the general public grew to love Carmen for its evocative melodies and unforgettable arias. Admirers of the opera included Tchaikovsky, Brahms and, even, Nietzsche. Almost everyone, including non-opera fans, is familiar with the opera, given its excessive use in various TV commercials. Sadly, Bizet died three months after its premiere yet, if Bizet had lived longer, he would have seen the success his opera would soon become.
Catalan director Calixto Bieito’s production of “Carmen,” first seen in 2012, has been performed regularly in Europe and is back at the ENO (English National Opera) who are upping their game and trying to fill more seats with novel operas and up-and-coming talent, despite government cuts. To add to the their 2015/16 repertoire, Bieito will direct a new production of Verdi’s “The Force of Destiny,” a co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, this coming autumn. This week, the ENO received praise at their first night of Carmen, blowing the audience away with a thrilling performance. If you look away, you might miss something!
The modern day production, with Alfons Flores’ economic and sparse stage design of the dying days of the Spanish Franco regime of the 1970s, is filled with symbolism and multiple functions. Although set in festive Spain, the backdrop is a sordid reality of desolation and loneliness, as cold as a bordered land space. The desert ground and used Mercedes cars signify the cheapness and commercialism that proliferates in such bleak state.
The military is corrupt, sexually exploitative and misogynistic, and Don José, the tame soldier who Carmen chooses as his love victim, shows the criminal shades of this pathology at the opera’s conclusion, where he kills his passion and allows jealousy to win. But, the sparse staging doesn’t mean the stage is empty. Bieito breathes life into the production with an active and lively cast causing havoc and cheering on bullfighters in bright, contemporary dress, designed by Mercè Paloma.
Sir Richard Armstrong conducts the ENO orchestra with gusto and mirth in the overture. The much-admired ENO chorus and children’s chorus are also a wonder to watch not only in their vocal agility but in their acting prowess.
Lithuanian mezzo-soprano, Justina Gringyte, who has been named ‘Young Singer of the Year’ at the International Opera Awards, sings the lead role as the heartless gypsy, Carmen with confidence and zeal. Her Carmen lures men like a honey trap, using her sexuality as a weapon and a means to get what she wants. There’s much detail in how Paloma dresses Gringyte to present Carmen’s sexual appetite by styling her in a slitted short skirt and easy-to-access blouse.
Tenor Eric Cutler makes his debut as Don José in this production, subtly moulding himself into the various emotional grades of José. He sings adoringly as an innocent bystander who falls in love, yet in the later acts, as Carmen continues to reject him, he reveals a murderous José driven by blood and anguish like Shakespeare’s Othello. ENO Harewood Artist, Eleanor Dennis as the more wholesome girl, Michaëla sings lusciously with sweet sorrow in ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ in Act III.
Clare Presland with Rhian Lois, as Carmen’s unlawful sidekicks, work marvellously together like a tag-team. They seem to have fun as pesky gypsy tarts that they sing their parts naturally and effortlessly, particularly in ‘Chanson bohème’ with Gringyte. Yet, Leigh Melrose needed a bit of warming up when singing the ‘Toreador Song’ as José’s rival, Escamillo. The aria is one of the most famous parts of Carmen and his voice, unfortunately, didn’t lift off until Act II in the duet with Cutler.
Audiences will enjoy this production as it is relatable, distinctively presented and brought together by Bizet’s spectacular score. There’s a quality cast to be entertained by and some mindful staging that shouldn’t be missed. The question remains – how long can the ENO depend on successful revival productions to keep their seats filled? As we saw in the recent live premiere of “The Pirates of Penzance,” not all new productions can grab audiences.