CARMEN Georges Bizet
English National Opera. London

Review by Polly Hope

Carmen, possibly worn to more shreds than any other opera ever, yet a failure when it first opened in 1875. But a failure not for long for who could ever resist such a great story and such wonderfultunes? And of course if one is not Spanish, then that land is still exotic, passionate, and for exploring

This production by Calixto Bieito,a Spaniard, is I think very good. Okay, not a very pointed or exciting way to start, but it is true and many critics forget to say this.

Bieito sets his Carmen in the time of late Franco, well there are a lot of soldiers about in funny hats, and this does feel right, and don’t forget itis less than a hundred years since the work was first performed, our grand parents would have been around. For the entire performance the stage is almost empty and the story is played in smoke and mist. I know some directors will never allow dry ice anywhere near any stage, but an entire production in mist does work and is mysterious

The chorus is enormous, soldiers and more soldiers and the only thing on stage is a flagpole with a Spanish flag that is hauled up and down from time to time. Sand and dust and mist. We all know the story, the innocent recruit falling for the sexy gypsy girl.But here we hit a problem as the sexy gypsy girl isn’t sexy even a tiny bit, she is Ruxandra Donose, a blond in a fearfully ugly 1950s dress that no one would have been seen dead in even then. She sings all right, just, butnot a good bit of casting. If Carmen isn’t oozing sex then the whole evening doesn’t get lift off. In the last act she livens up a bit when she has to be fierce and angry.

Micaela is sung by Elizabeth Llewellyn and she is lovely, just right, a sweet innocent and pretty girl, Jose must be nuts to have dropped her for Carmen. As for Jose, Adam Diegle does a good enough job of a woolly headed boy being enticed. Escamillo the bullfighter, is played by Leigh Melrose as a weedy mean little chap in a trilby, this works surprisingly well.

The best scene in the production is the smugglers lair in Act 3, here the mist has lifted and the stage is lit by cold white moonlight. Mostly on stage moonlight never works, it always moves around casting spooky shadows while a huge orb rises on the backdrop; here it is just cold and the moon is not seen. Instead no less than six huge 1950s Mercedes cars slip onto the stage with their illicit goods, quite a few washing machines stacked on their back seats.

The high point of the drama is the last scene where only the chorus is seen, everything else happens off stage until Carmen and Jose appear and between them they make a pretty searing job of Carmen’s death, one is almost touched.
The chorus throughout this production is magnificent and Bieito handles crowds so skillfully that you feel you really are in astreet demonstration, or asoldier’s barracks. Bieito has mounted this production already in several big houses and this I think has not made it jaded and dull but every last detail has been honed into perfection.

I write about the production rather than the singing, as this is so good. Bizet’s music is, well we know what it is, Spanish melodies with a Parisian twist and hard to wreck, though Ryan Wigglesworth the conductorhas done his best, tempos are slow, arias are heavy, the sparkle is dulled but Carmen the Opera is a winner, impossible to kill, like Hamlet, you just can’t knock it out.

If only operas today could get to grips with such excellent stories as Carmen with music that emotionally touches the soul, I am sure it can be done and there are one or two very rare examples, but the run of the mill artsy fartsy stuff is toe curlingly awful and the major opera houses fall for this Emperor’s New Clothes effect. Please, some real stories about wonderful people with melodies, which like Mozart’s baker’s boy, we can go home whistling. No, I am not talking about musicals, though they are beginning to fill the gap and getting quite serious. They are a different thing and one day when I am perfectly sure what the difference is I’ll write about it.

Meanwhile enjoy Carmen just whenever you can.