Thrilling, contemporary, relevant, thought-provoking: what more could be asked of an opera production?
ENO have scored a major triumph with their season-opener, a new production of Bizet's Carmen by the film director Sally Potter. Far from seeming out of her depth in a medium unfamiliar to her, Potter brings considerable flair and cinematic deftness to her first opera production. From first to last, this is a gripping experience.
Potter transports the story to a modern setting in which José is a security guard and Carmen a prostitute. But Micaëla retains the same personality (though she's a bit warmed up and kisses José, which makes her less two-dimensional) and Escamillo is still a prize bullfighter, so the director remains faithful to the plot while making it resonate with a modern audience.
The level of Potter's ingenuity really does know no bounds. In particular, she cleverly makes the opera about 'us' without resorting to cheap gimmicks. In the opening scene, as José sits in his office observing security surveillance video screens, the images on the screens are projected above the stage so that the audience can see them. They show films taken outside the Coliseum and inside the theatre's foyers, confronting us with our own image and forcing us to ask: what is this communal, ritualistic spectacle called 'opera' all about?
This postmodern touch is typical of Potter's re-imagining of this most familiar of operas for today. The production is also willing to be playful. When the trumpet fanfares demand José's return to the office just before the 'Flower Song' in Act 2, he picks up his mobile phone to indicate that that's where the music is coming from; Carmen then dances to the putative 'ring tone'. It's a witty touch that calls to mind Jonathan Miller's iconic staging of the Duke's aria in the last act of Rigoletto - also set in a bar lit by neon lights, as it hapens - in which a coin is inserted into a juke box to start the orchestral accompaniment. And just like Miller's Rigoletto, this highly visual and theatrical Carmen promises to endure for some time to come.
Another brilliantly staged scene is the opening of Act 4. The crowds gather outside the bullring in the usual way, but Potter turns them into British tourists complaining along the lines of: 'How will we cope with the heat? Is there anything we can eat?' Carmen is part of the importation of the exotic Other into Western art during the late nineteenth-century (Samson et Dalila is another example). Here, Potter flips the trend on its head and mocks the way in which our almost grotesque fascination with other cultures rarely results in our adapting to them (highly perceptive, in light of many French composers' reinvention rather than adoption of 'Spanish' music). It's also part of the director's very happy marriage with the opéra-comique roots of Carmen - a lightness of touch both musically and dramatically that makes this a very human yet quite frequently witty opera. The odd jarring word or phrase in Christopher Cowell's new translation was noticeable only because the remainder of his text is so superbly musical and interesting. Cowell follows Potter's lead in engaging with Carmen as a piece for our times, making the libretto strikingly modern and easy to follow, yet retaining a feel for its poetry. The decision to stick to the minimum of recitative and dispense with the dialogue also helps the show to move slickly and have an immediate impact.
Except when the British tourists ask for oranges, the clichéd imagery of Carmen is banished, and the gesture itself tells us that these are our clichés, not Bizet's or Merimée's. Another instance of this is the staging of the entr'acte at the start of Act Three. Traditionally, this piece of music depicts the tranquil Spanish landscape. But here, Potter has some guards and a dog stride across the stage, defending the border that the smugglers are trying to cross. A raised gantry is then very slowly revealed, initially showing the feet of dancers performing some sort of tango, before the other characters appear. Again, the music is reinterpreted, but in an exciting and visually arresting way.
In general, I feel the semiotics of the tango could have been used a little more assertively and engagingly. The dance during the opening of Act 4 felt like a filler in front of the curtain and the one at the end of the 'Chanson bohème' was rather anti-climactic. It would have been more coherent to have the female dancer linked more explicitly with the figure of Carmen by having them dressed identically. Conversely, I thought that the breakdancing was mesmerising - and again, this challenged our conceptions of the piece without in any way being offensive or disrespectful to the work. To me, these moments of urban dancing and iconography truly confirmed that this is a production for all times, all classes and all audiences.
Musically, only one thing stopped the evening from being a complete success. Glaringly miscast in the title role, Alice Coote had none of the vocal qualities that the music demands. She kept striving for a grittier tone and was evidently trying to sound earthy and sexy, but it resulted in her going both out of tune and out of time. She was a rather cold figure, too, making the central passions rather difficult to believe in at times, but she did look the part. The truth is, though, that she is a fine singer of baroque and classical music who was out of her comfort zone in this piece. I believe that her natural vocal quality, rather than an unfortunate and very nasty viral infection (for which she deserves both sympathy and admiration for returning to the production), was responsible for her vocal problems.
Otherwise, this was in general a musically strong performance. Katie Van Kooten was particularly excellent as Micaëla. The ex-Young Artist of the Royal Opera House has come on in leaps and bounds since leaving the programme and here produced world class singing. Her duet with José was the most emotionally absorbing part of the evening: a rich, full tone and excellent diction made all of her contributions a sheer pleasure to listen to.
Equally committed was tenor Julian Gavin as José. Once his voice had warmed up he was able to produce some glorious sounds, and he was throughout a compelling actor. Thanks to his energy and drive, it was possible to believe in the force of José's obsession with Carmen, despite Coote's indifferent performance. Gavin is a good solid tenor with a fine technique and the knowledge of when to call upon his considerable vocal reserves.
I warmed, too, to David Kempster's Escamillo. He did well to avoid the obviousness of the character and instead behaved like an aristocrat of bullfighting. While not the most stunning I've ever heard, Kempster's voice is very serviceable, allowing him to communicate his vision of the character with detail.
Most of the smaller roles were very well sung, especially Graeme Danby's Zuniga, Elena Xanthoudakis' Frasquita and Fiona Murphy's Mercedes.
Edward Gardner conducted the piece like a true Music Director, showing a real rapport with the orchestra and chorus, neither of whom have sounded quite so wholly inspired in recent times. The horns particularly stood out in the introduction to Micaëla's aria and the chorus was genuinely rousing, ensuring that this felt like a 'company' production. Just occasionally I would have liked slightly different speeds - the 'Habanera' and 'Chanson bohème' were slow to the point of sounding enervated, while at times the singers were rushing ahead.
But on the whole, this was a hugely entertaining and thought-provoking start to the new season at ENO. Let's hope it bodes well for the coming months.
Photo credit: ENO and Tristram Kenton
Read our interview with Sally Potter about this production here.