Carmen, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, November 2012

The ENO’s new production of Carmen by Calixto Bieito is a stunner. No romantic gypsies here, but a bunch of nasty crooks who don’t bother to tie up Zuniga when he appears in Act II, but simply kick the hell out of him behind their Mercedes. And in Act III after Micaëla, beautifully sung by Elizabeth Llewellyn, has been found hiding in the back seat of one of the half dozen Mercs on stage, Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercédès, go through her handbag and take whatever they feel like. Mercédès has a pretty daughter, but they are coarse women against whom Carmen looks like real class. And when Don Jose meets up with her in Act IV there is no stabbing. He slashes at her, she clutches her throat, and staggers with blood dripping over her hands.

All images ENO/ Alastair Muir

This is a very physical, earthy production. One of the soldiers runs round and around the stage at the start, presumably as a punishment, and collapses. But without strict orders, these are not soldiers you would want to get close if they are in buoyant mood. And during the overture when we see a conjuring trick that is merely a joke, this is a warning not to expect the usual. The occasional spoken dialogue worked well, the earthiness is compelling, and remember that the original story by Prosper Mérimée is based on a real case — in Spain he went to interview a prisoner condemned to death for killing a gypsy.

Carmen and Don Jose

As Don Jose, American tenor Adam Diegel sang brilliantly, portraying the honourable nature of this man who went so terribly wrong under Carmen’s spell. It was a great performance. Romanian mezzo Ruxandra Donose made an attractive sexy Carmen, and Mercè Paloma’s main costume for her was inspired, allowing her to bend her knees aside without losing decorum. Wonderful lighting by Bruno Poet went from dark to sultry to cheerful brightness for the start of Act IV when a pretty girl in long blond hair suns herself on a Spanish flag with a bull motif in its centre. At the end when Don Jose has committed his final sin, Carmen lies in the same position. The imagery is clever, with the dark shape of a huge bull at stage rear during Act III, pulled down with a bang to start the celebrations of Act IV.

The start of Act IV

Among supporting roles, Graeme Danby was smugly nasty as Lieutenant Zuniga, Duncan Rock made a fine Corporal Moralès with magnificent stage presence, and Madeleine Shaw sang an excellent Mercédès. The visceral energy of this production was complemented by Ryan Wigglesworth in the orchestra pit, along with excellent work by the chorus and children, and the whole thing came over as hugely realistic.

Not to be missed, and performances only continue until December 9 — for details click here.

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