Seeing red: ‘Carmen’, English National Opera

This is a stunning production of an opera you might think you know – until this version starts stripping it down, peeling away the layers until you’re left with just a man, a woman… and darkness.

English National Opera (ENO)’s current ‘Carmen’ is director Jamie Manton’s revival of Calixto Bieito’s 1999 staging, which updates the action of Bizet’s original opera to the 1970s. I was struck by how that decade loomed over the evening on (at least) two levels…

The actual events of the story play out against the closing years of the Franco regime, allowing for the complete removal of any hint of flamenco flamboyance. Soldiers sweat through or strip down from their uniforms; the factory girls sport identikit shop-floor uniform of their own; the travellers assemble in mismatched, salvaged fashions. Instead of heat and sand elevating the atmosphere to an alluring sultriness, it grinds down into grit and grime.

And in terms of the production’s style and aesthetics, I kept being reminded of 70s cinema, in particular that characteristic strand of movies that brought us down with a bump from the 60s: increasing emphasis on violence; the futility of heroism or bravado; the matter-of-fact, downbeat ending. The worship, and then undermining, of machismo. Toxic masculinity runs through this interpretation of ‘Carmen’ like poison.

The direction, choreography and lighting all worked together handsomely to bring this out. The principal characters were lit with bright precision: so much so that, for example, when Carmen is either being harassed by lustful troops or consoled by two women standing by, we see her, brilliantly, almost in a ‘close-up’ (despite our distance). The Chorus members around her remained in half-shadow, barely identifiable. However, experienced viewers of the ENO Chorus will know that they are highly-accomplished visual actors (and lovely movers). Their ability to convey aggression, sympathy, and all points in-between with expressive body language and individual interactions should not surprise anyone.

Keeping much of the stage in semi-darkness contributed to the air of foreboding, building tension right up to the shocking final moments. It underlined the characters’ tunnel vision, that this was the only life they knew and there was no way out; it heightened the claustrophobic inevitability of Carmen and José’s destruction. Again, this felt richly cinematic, manipulating our focus as well as our feelings. 

One of the reasons I think this interpretation works particularly well is the visual dissonance it displays with what we’re hearing: Bizet’s incredible music. Absolute wall-to-wall bangers; a smattering of opera’s best-loved tunes, plus some more tunes thrown in on top of those. Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra alike all sang the score inside out, the power and volume filling the Coliseum. One had the sense that this gave the characters release, exploding for once into music rather than violence.

(It is difficult to write about ENO without at least acknowledging their current, problematic situation following their treatment by the Arts Council. It would be entirely understandable – and perhaps appealing to us as fans of their craft – if the ferocious brio on display was partly due to extra fire in their collective belly. But the truth is that the Chorus and Orchestra, every time I’ve seen them, have always offered next-level energy and commitment. ‘Carmen’ was no different.)

Ginger Costa-Jackson gave a complex, fearless performance as Carmen. Her rich, full voice was somehow both seductive and vast, bathing the auditorium in sound. When necessary, she seemed able to re-shape her tone with a keening quality that conveyed both anger and yearning. 

One particular example of this clash happens early on, when we meet Carmen for the first time and she sings the famous Habenera. At this stage – as mentioned before – she is not differentiated from her colleagues by costume in any way, and she almost has to ‘emerge’ from the throng to begin running musical rings around the surrounding men. The impression is one of defiance, laced with desperation. 

As José, Sean Panikkar matched Costa-Jackson’s intensity: again, unafraid of giving an unsympathetic performance, he gave the character three dimensions without letting us forget what he is: a thuggish abuser. His treatment of Micaëla, given both nobility and naivety in Carrie-Anne Williams’s sensitive portrayal, demonstrates how his mood swings shift on a dime. 

Panikkar’s control of the dynamics of his voice made for an unforgettably chilling finale. It’s remarkable how we see José cycle through so many levels of manipulation – assuring Carmen there’s no need to be afraid, that he’ll do anything for her, then escalating to violence when she still resists – telescoped into this ultimate, blistering confrontation. Panikkar paced the increasing threat to perfection, so that – even though we know Carmen’s murder is coming – there is no compromise in its wasteful brutality.

The supporting cast made all their roles memorable – Benson Wilson’s imposing Moralès, Alexandra Oomens’s and Niamh O’Sullivan’s skilfully-etched portraits of Frasquita and Mercédés during the cards scene, and Nmon Ford’s unruffled toreador Escamillo.

But this staging is so ruthless that, even though we know we are a few paces away from a packed arena cheering a bullfighter – we’ve seen the crowd, their outfits providing almost the only splashes of colour – we spend the closing moments of the opera watching another tragic duel to the death, where both parties can only lose.


English National Opera’s ‘Carmen’ is at the London Coliseum until 24 February 2023.

Photos are by Adiam Yemane, from the production gallery on ENO’s website.

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