Calixto Bieito’s thrillingly audacious staging of Carmen makes a welcome return to English National Opera following its unveiling in 2012, and it remains the finest work this maverick director has presented in London. For someone renowned for directorial excess, his 70s’ take on Bizet’s opera is a model of restraint compared to most of his work, yet it still contains enough sex and violence to make the silver-tops in the audience reach for the smelling salts.
Anyone hankering after an anodyne Spanish picture postcard evocation of Seville will be in for a shock. By relocating the action to the dying days of Franco’s dictatorship we’re thrown headlong into a melting pot of simmering sexual tension and barely contained violence enacted out by a society teetering on the brink.
Aided and abetted by Alfons Flores’ simple and evocative designs – a flagpole and telephone box in Act I, a battered old Mercedes for the middle acts, an iconic replica of the Osborne bull for the third, and a rope for the last, Bieito’s ability to conjure up an exciting series of tableaux across the vast expanses of the Coliseum stage is masterly. When combined with Bruno Poet’s exquisite lighting plot, you can almost smell the acrid stench of Seville on a blistering summer’s day.
It all adds up to a disturbing, challenging yet thrilling take on the work that deserves repeat viewings but, and it’s a big but, the cast, or at least the majority of it, appeared unwilling to dive headlong into Bieito’s concept. It was if they were keeping it all at arm’s length, and as such the performance failed to catch fire.
Most of the blame for this has to lie at conductor Richard Armstrong’s door, as his reading was far too polite, lacking the rough and tumble and fire that Bizet’s score requires. True, co-ordination between stage and pit was fine, and it was well paced, but you know there’s something amiss when the final confrontation between Don Jose and Carmen fails to ignite; this should be edge of the seat stuff, but by favouring finesse over visceral excitement Armstrong let any tension on stage dissipate.
Maybe if there had been more of a sense of sexual allure and chemistry between the doomed lovers, the musical shortcomings might have mattered less, but despite Justina Gringyte’s valiant efforts in the title role, Eric Cutler’s Don José remained stolid and lacking in charisma; his confrontation with Carmen at the close was more akin to a worried boyfriend wondering if the library books were overdue rather than a spurned lover hell bent on revenge. He has a pleasing tenor voice, opening up to telling effect above the stave, making it even more frustrating that his interpretation was so one dimensional.
Justina Gringyte on the other hand is a knowing Carmen, fully aware of how she can sexually ensnare her victims and has a distinctive, if at times slightly nasal yet richly coloured voice. She is also a magnetic stage presence and was one of the few singers on stage to fully embody the requirements the staging demanded.
Leigh Melrose returned as a compelling Escamillo, and Rhian Lois was a perky Frasquita, but the remainder of the cast wasn’t quite on a par with their predecessors of three years ago. Hopefully the tension will be ratcheted up a notch or two as the run progresses, as Bieto’s unflinching take on Bizet’s ever-green masterpiece deserves a top-notch cast.