Carmen At The ENO Has Sun, Sea And Sangria

Carmen, Coliseum ★★★☆☆

By Mike C Last edited 11 months ago

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Carmen At The ENO Has Sun, Sea And Sangria Carmen, Coliseum 3
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Saying something new about Carmen, with its well-worn tale of toxic masculinity and the plight of the working girl, is always going to be a challenge.

The audience will come regardless because of the pretty Bizet tunes and exotic Y Viva Espana locale. So director Calixto Bieito dispenses with the latter and stages the world's best-loved opera with lots of darkness and shadow. It's taken out of its usual 1820s Seville setting and placed instead in an unnamed Spanish colony just before the fall of Franco.

Whether it works is largely down to expectations. The orchestration is a lush wall of sound carefully controlled by conductor Valentina Peleggi, which only occasional threatens to overwhelm the singers, and the costumes and settings mostly work. The arrival of the cars — © Matthew Bourne, surely? — is an effective moment, the first lone, beat-up Mercedes arriving onstage with its headlights full on in the gloom and then the beach scene with four more: the Coliseum stage as parking lot.

But so much in this production is overshadowed and half-seen: the arrival of the children, hidden behind the line of soldiers with their backs to the audience in act 1, and later a precocious little kid dancer prancing in the darkness, are no doubt meant to suggest concealment and secrets, but serve mainly to have the audience peering and craning for a better view. The busy, busy crowd scenes also seem overworked at times, as the singing gets a little lost, and they obscure and camouflage the action rather than focusing it.

Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Sunny Spain is banished — if you're expecting colourful matador and flamenco costumes, you may be disappointed. The feted Escamillo (charismatic baritone Ashley Riches) appears in traditional toreador drag just once and fleetingly. Among those crowd scenes, however, the arrival of the bullfighters in the fourth act is the exception, which is played with conventional brio to great effect.

Our Jose (Sean Panikkar, with a superb pout) is a posterboy for functional incels everywhere — a wooden, socially awkward manboy animated as much by his lust and passion for Carmen (played and sung full-blooded by Justina Gringytė) as by a seeming entitlement that he deserves sex. The Generalisimo would surely have been an enthusiastic proponent of the Tradwife movement, so it's scarcely surprising that in this microcosm of fascist Spain, the wayward one comes unstuck.

If for much of the production Carmen's story stays within conventional lines, it is the manner of her death that becomes her. Jose, previously a cardboard cut-out and a bystander, comes to impassioned, violent life. The finale stands in contrast to so much in the preceding show — the fatal couple harshly illuminated on an almost bare stage, and mercifuAlly no closing melee of cast swarming around them, just Jose resigned to his guilt and starkly dragging a dead body off the stage like a slaughtered bull. It's jarring, shocking and effective.

Come for the singing and the music, if not the sun, sea and sangria. And that denouement, which justifies the business that precedes it.

Carmen, Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, WC2N 4ES, from £10. 1-27 February

Last Updated 31 January 2020