Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Carmen @ Coliseum, London

29 September - 23 November 2007

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: ENO)

Sally Potter’s new production of Carmen is no such thing but an adaptation, and that’s putting it mildly, of Bizet’s operatic masterpiece. And the result? A wasted opportunity that manages to turn an indestructible opera into a pile of inconsequential rubble, through which a talented cast have to tread a measured path in order to drain Bizet’s masterpiece of every ounce of colour.

The libretto which Bizet set didn’t fit into Ms Potter’s interpretation, so it has been re-written by Christopher Cowell. In Act One a chorus of children usually appears and sings about the changing of the guard. As there’s no guard here, they appear dressed in white, wearing sunglasses and sing about the children’s army of Jesus. I am still trying to fathom the purpose of this, like most of what was presented on stage. During the overture we’re treated to Don Jose flicking on a series of TV monitors and we witness a view of the foyer of the Coliseum where it appears late arrivals are hurrying to their seats. This served no dramatic purpose as far as I could see and there are many similar distractions in Act One, but mercifully we’re spared more in the ensuing acts.

In Es Devlin‘s ugly sets we’re in operatic never-neverland. Act One seems to be set in the bottom of a dried up dam. The soldiers are security guards, with Jose the head of security as he wears a black suit and tie. The female chorus are ladies of the night, scantily clad, and Carmen is – well there’s the rub. I had no idea who any of these people were, as not only was the text re-written, but all the dialogue was removed, making the story mostly incoherent. If you don’t trust what the composer has written, then I think it’s probably best to leave well alone.

In Act Two we’re in a neon-lit bar that positively oozes boredom from every bulb, and in Act Three all the action takes place on a bridge that straddles the stage, where all the principals’ facial expressions are rendered indecipherable due to the presence of a gauze and skewed lighting. And if you can’t see the performers’ facial expressions then what’s the point? It merely confirmed that Potter wanted to drive an emotional wedge between audience and performer, thus negating any sense of melodrama that pounces from every bar of this effervescent score.

Updatings of operas don’t bother me at all in fact I am a huge fan of some of the most reviled opera directors at large at the moment, but what was so dispiriting here was a lack of theatrical vision. Potter had a lot to say about what she thought this opera to be about but in doing so, neglected to actually stage the opera. Everything was so inwardly emoted that the whole evening failed to catch fire and each characterization stubbornly refused to cross the footlights.

Expectations ran high for Alice Coote‘s debut in the title role. She was recovering from a really bad virus that had laid her low for a week, but the only hint of that was her cautious top-notes. Otherwise she has the makings of a fine Carmen, as she possesses a wonderfully rich chest register, superb diction and is, when directed properly, a natural stage animal. Potter subdues her natural stage persona an introverted Carmen is a very strange thing to behold but this is how Coote had to play the role.

Julian Gavin didn’t hold back on volume in the role of Don Jose, but at least his singing provided some real thrills that were lacking elsewhere. David Kempster failed to register on the testosterone-ometer as Escamillo, whilst Katie van Kooten sounded as though she was auditioning for Sieglinde. At least she sang the role of Micaela from the heart although did she really only have one jacket and skirt in her wardrobe?

The final scene between Carmen and Jose did have a certain theatrical frisson, but a ten minute thrill at the end of two hours and fifty minutes of purgatory was too little too late. The orchestra played well for Music Director Edward Gardner, although it was worrying how he sanctioned the excision of the spoken dialogue.

Expectations ran so high for this much-trumpeted first night, yet they were so cruelly dashed. From reading the blogs and interviews on the excellent Carmen mini-site, I was expecting something that had a Peter Brook-like intensity, at the very least. But alas, it was not to be what a sad anti-climax this Carmen proved to be.

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