Carmen, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, February 2018Posted on 7 February 2018
Carmen as a musical is what the first part (Acts 1 and 2) felt like, but a musical needs better dance sequences, and the choreography was ineffective. Yet Barrie Kosky, whose production of Shostakovich’s Nose appeared at Covent Garden in late 2016, is ever a theatrical innovator.
The orchestra starts without warning as the proscenium arch lights up, and the curtain opens to show a broad stairway, covering the stage from left to right, enlivened by Carmen in pink matador costume and yellow stockings. It’s a bold start but things soon flag as Carmen’s voice is heard over a loud speaker, narrating the story. This clever idea leads to a twist in the final moments, but the spoken narration, in beautiful French by Luxemburg actress Claude de Demo, breaks the flow of the music.
Yet Kosky gives us two marvellous coups de théâtre, one the brutal Act 1 fight between Carmen and Manuelita as they tumble down the stairs without tripping, falling or breaking any bones, and the other towards the very end as Carmen descends the vast stairway in a black dress with a train that covers a dozen stairs. No spoilers here, but the key idea is that this is all about Carmen, hence the irritating narration. Kosky’s interesting concept is also weakened by Otto Pichler’s choreography for the six dancers, and the allusion to 1920s Berlin before the cigarette girls’ entrance seems out of place. I doubt this will appeal in London, but then Kosky is artistic director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, and this production first appeared in Frankfurt.
The other innovation is a new critical edition of the score by Austrian conductor and composer Michael Rot, including music in the Habanera and finale not heard at the opera’s premiere. The musical direction was the strongest aspect of the performance, superbly lyrical under the baton of Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša, and the chorus was in top-rate form. Russian soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan produced heart-warming singing as Micaëla, but there is something wrong when the best singer on stage is Micaëla, and although Anna Goryachova delivered a strong Carmen, exhibiting a harshness appropriate to the role, she lacked allure. Francesco Meli was a forceful but somewhat uneven Don Jose, and Kostas Smoriginas needed more testosterone for Escamillo the matador. David Soar made a strong bass presence as Lieutenant Zuniga, with young artists Jacquelyn Stucker and Aigul Akhmetshina dancing and singing beautifully as Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercédès.
Barrie Kosky’s innovations are always worth seeing, but this does not have the punch of his excellent Saul at Glyndebourne, nor his Meistersinger at Bayreuth last summer.
Performances with two different casts continue on various dates until March 16 — for details click here.