Carmen at ENO
Bizet’s Carmen has probably been the world’s most performed opera since it premiered at the L’Opéra Comique in Paris in 1875.
Scroll up to 2020 and opera houses and directors worldwide are still trying to come up with ways of injecting new life into Bizet’s rich score. Carmen’s hits, have been played so often over the airways, they must have entered our very DNA.
One way of freshening up this nineteenth century opera is to reimagine the central role of Carmen.
At the Coliseum the other night, Carmen, sung by tall, fair, Lithuanian mezzo-soprano, Justina Gringyté, was different to Bizet’s raven-haired, Hispanic woman, I had conjured in my mind. Statuesque Gringyté did not writhe or hip-swing like the Carmens who had graced the Opéra Comique for decades. With her pared-back movements, Gringyté’s Carmen, came across as enigmatic and distant.
Gringyté undoubtable has a strong mezzo soprano voice, and, it has to be noted, has earned much praise in the role since 2015. She was however muted in the most famous aria of all time, the slip-sliding Habenera. No one was expecting her to pole dance provocatively to capture Don José’s attention, but a little more variety in tone and vocal shading would have been welcome. Luckily her voice loosened up as the opera progressed and she was able to display the beauty in her voice, particularly in the lower register. It has to be remembered, Carmen is a demanding sing!
Meanwhile, fresh from the Met was Sean Panikkar singing Don José. The tenor, sang torment extremely well in Act II, especially in the aria, in which his opposing loyalties to the army and Carmen were tearing him apart. When he succumbs to his love finally and reveals that Carmen owns him head, body and soul, the audience rewarded him with loud applause.
The supporting roles too stood out on the night and brought energy to the stage. Carmen’s friends, Frasquita and Mercédès, impressed with their bright sounding sopranos in the trios with Gringté, and the quintet with Matthew Durkan, Dancer, and John Findon, Remendado, was very entertaining.
The greatest discovery however was soprano, Nardus Williams as lovelorn Micaëla. Her hesitant, loving concern for José and his mother, was delivered with heart-crushing fervour in a beautiful vibrato.
And finally, the all important staging in this production. Director, Calixto Bieito, is well known for his radical reimagining of traditional operatic works.
One thing Bieito was determined to hold onto was the Hispanic context given the amount of Spanish influences in the score. The action however, has been transposed from sunny Seville to what could be a northern, Catalan border town. The stage is largely bare, but the sky is a gun metal blue, veiled in mist and backlit. In Act 1, a vandalised telephone box, of the sort we saw in the seventies, plastered with ads, is both Carmen’s weapon and prison. Battered Mercedes crawl over the stage menacingly on dipped beam and a gargantuan bull sculpture rears up on the horizon in Act III. Symbolic of the male driven culture in which, Carmen tries to survive, it is the stuff of nightmares.
There were bursts of light however. In the bullfighting scene, when the chorus sang with tremendous gusto for example. The ENO chorus were magnificent throughout as was the orchestra, tightly conducted by Valentina Peleggi, who managed to add new tension to Bizet’s score.
There were things to work on in this production, particularly the dynamics between the lovers. Carmen and José were sexual. Carmen removes her underwear on stage from a skirt with several slits in it, but the audience needed more passion, more eye contact perhaps.
This production will appeal to those who have grown tired of the picturesque Carmen of yesteryear or the overly intellectual reinterpretations of Carmen productions of late. On the night I attended, a woman complained about a Carmen performed at Royal Opera in 2018, where she had had problems making head or tail of it!
She was however most appreciative of the production we had seen, and I too, felt that the three and a half hours had flown by and that Bieito’s radical new Carmen, had felt cohesive and true.
A good ensemble piece.
Carmen continues on 6th, 11th, 14th, 20th, 27th February at 19.30. 22nd February at 18.15. 8th February at 14.00