Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Carmen review: A society on the verge of a nervous breakdown

4 February 2023

ENO is firing on all cylinders with this unmissable, scorching revival of Bizet’s masterpiece.


Ginger Costa-Jackson (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

It’s hard to imagine a better response to Arts Council England’s disastrous decision to decimate the company, than this blistering revival of Calixto Bieito’s thrilling staging of Bizet’s masterpiece. On the basis of this performance with the entire company – orchestra, chorus and principals – galvanised into delivering a performance of such shattering intensity – the very notion that this organisation is in some way dispensable was well and truly blown out of the water.

This was the fourth outing for the Catalan director’s Franco-era inspired production, and was without the shadow of a doubt the finest showing since it was new in 2012. Within Alfons Flores’ minimal designs Bieito has crafted a piece of contemporary theatre that grabs you by the scruff off the neck and refuses to let go. Anyone in search of a picture-postcard view of Spain had better look elsewhere, as the society presented on stage here is violent, and constantly on the edge. The smell of sweat permeates the air, with danger lurking at every corner in this dilapidated, down at heel setting. Women are objectified, abused, pawed, leered at by men, which is why within this setting, the defiant, single-minded Carmen stands out more than she would in a traditional setting.

Revival director Jamie Manton has done a sterling job at presenting Bieito’s uncompromising vision so faithfully – maybe too faithfully for a couple of audience members who left during one of the staging’s more violent episodes – that I felt I was seeing it for the first time. The stagecraft remains impeccable, the direction of the singers faultless, and the occasional moments of repose – the naked soldier dancing in the moonlight to the Entr’acte to the third act remains an unforgettable theatrical image – come across with even more poignancy given the uncompromising view of the piece.

“…the very notion that this organisation is in some way dispensable was well and truly blown out of the water”


Sean Panikkar & Ginger Costa-Jackson (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Of course, in order for this impeccable staging to come alive you need excellent singers, so it’s a pleasure to report that English National Opera has assembled a top-notch cast, with every one of them performing at the absolute top of their game. Casting Ginger Costa-Jackson in the title role was a stroke of genius. Not only is she a compelling stage presence – it was impossible to take your eyes off her – but she also possesses a mezzo-soprano voice infused with Mediterranean colours, allied to a formidable, smoky chest voice that combined to deliver a performance full of nuance and visceral excitement. She was a force of nature, and certainly one of the finest interpreters of the role I’ve had the privilege to see and hear.

She was ably partnered by Sean Panikkar’s Don José. His descent from upstanding soldier to unhinged psychopath was unerringly chartered, and his bright, lyrical tenor rang out thrillingly. He too is a vivid stage presence – his final, fatal encounter with his former lover was hair-raising in its ferocity. Indeed with him and Costa-Jackson cranking the intensity level up to eleven, I can’t recall a more shattering conclusion to this opera.

Nmon Ford certainly had the vocal swagger required for Escamillo, but was evidently happier in the higher-lying reaches of the role. Many of the low notes evaded him, but that’s more Bizet’s fault than his – rarely have I heard a singer who’s happy across its wide range. As on the first night, soprano Carrie-Ann Williams jumped in to replace the announced Micaëla, and produced some gloriously projected, creamy singing. Bright, easily projected, and stylish, her voice gave notice of a major new talent – one that the audience also recognised as she was awarded the biggest ovation of the night.

All the comprimario roles were cast from strength – I don’t recall ever hearing a finer Frasquita (Alexandra Oomens) or Mercédès (Niamh O’Sullivan) – making this one of the most thoroughly enjoyable performances at ENO for quite some time. In the pit Kerem Hasan caught the colours of Bizet’s score to perfection and, as mentioned before, the playing of the orchestra and singing of the chorus couldn’t be bettered.

Not surprisingly this run of performances is doing exceedingly well at the box office. So, if there are any tickets left, grab them while you can.

• Details of future performances can be found here.

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Carmen review: A society on the verge of a nervous breakdown