Bizet: Carmen

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 9 December 2012 4.5 stars

CarmenThere is no other opera in the canon--even one of Verdi's--that is quite as embedded in the collective imagination of Western culture as Bizet's Carmen. Everyone knows the habanera and Escamillo's anthem, and the idea of a femme fatale is still rehashed today in television and film. Much can be said (and much has been said) about what a collective love for Carmen may mean socially: do people enjoy seeing the rebellious female spirit crushed under the weight of male dominance? Perhaps most importantly, one wonders if Carmen is a victim of her own doing or of circumstance, or, indeed at all.

The opera is of course indebted to the French opéra-comique tradition, notably in its recurring use of several themes at key points, one at least of which is heavily characterized by "Spanish" tinta. Indeed, Carmen is saturated with local color€--a common feature of late nineteenth-century opera--€”meant to invoke the ethos of Spain and its people (though, from a singularly musical perspective, one wonders what makes it particularly "Spanish" and not, for example, "Arab"). Bizet had learned from his previous experiments with color in Les Pêcheurs de perles, and by the time he wrote Carmen, mastered the use of the idiom.

This production at English National Opera was highly anticipated because it brings Calixto Bieito back to London. Although this production had its official début in Barcelona at the Liceu, this was its first time in London, and, my, what an absolute spot-on hit. I had never seen anything by Bieito before, but had heard of his forays to the outskirts of the Eurotrash Opera scene in Barcelona and Berlin and naturally couldn't wait to see his take on Carmen. The opera's action plays out amongst minimal sets: several cars, a lawn chair, a telephone booth, and a massive bull are all moved on and off stage as required within a clearly marked bullring; there are no abstract shapes, no surrealist typewriters, and certainly nothing for the sake of shock value.

The most important aspects of Bieito's production are twofold: the atmosphere (helped by the clever use of Bruno Poet's lighting) and the blocking. Every action and movement made sense, everything was motivated by what occurred in the music and plot; there were no random moments where the characters did something idiotic (taking off their shoes, for example) or for the sake of moving. It was the most "realistic" production of an opera I have ever seen, and certainly the greatest thing I have ever seen at ENO. Bieito should come to London more often and, perhaps even elsewhere (yes, that's your cue, Mr. Holten).

It helped, though, that there was a mostly all-star cast available to sing the lead roles. Ruxandra Donose sang a sultry and humane Carmen, though at times she did sound somewhat unsupported vocally. But these moments often occurred during moments of intense physical commitment onstage. Her interpretation is marked out by her clever ability to create not only tension through her use of color, but also to communicate feelings of awkwardness very well. She was fully committed and sang the role extremely well, though her habanera was slightly forced.

Adam Diegel was severely disappointing as Don José; I've written it before about other tenors and undoubtedly will write it again, but one needs more than just a suitable voice to sing music like this. There needs to be commitment, style, and flair, of which Diegel has none. To make matters worse, he often looked uncomfortable and rigid, although he did manage to redeem himself slightly by the fourth act.

As Escamillo, Leigh Melrose absolutely stole the show! His voice has a solid, syrupy core that he uses ruthlessly to communicate and pull heartstrings (his looks don't hurt either). His acting is natural and he plays the cocky bullfighter expertly. Duncan Rock was an perfectly commanding and tyrannical Moralès; it was lovely to hear him in a real opera house.

Special notice must of course go to Elizabeth Llewellyn who sang a heartfelt Micaëla. The supporting cast all played into the Spanish atmosphere Bieito created very well, but the chorus especially deserves mention, without giving too much away, for moving well outside their comfort zone.The orchestra was held together very well by Ryan Wigglesworth, and his tempi seemed to match the action on stage expertly.

Several of the questions set out at the start of this review are answered satisfactorily as you watch: in other words, Bieito's Carmen is one of those rare productions that really communicates something beyond twenty-first century Eurotrash kitsch. If you see anything at ENO this year, make sure that it's this.

By Michael Migliore

Photos: Alastair Muir