Bieito’s Carmen and how ENO has changed

29 Nov

Before I get to the performance of Carmen that I saw at ENO on 27 November, forgive a short trip down memory lane. Exactly 26 years before, I was at the first night of David Pountney’s production of the opera.  That was set on a Latin American car dump. It was not perfect. I recall thinking that the principals were rather dwarfed by the set and that spectacle at times overwhelmed what the opera was about. But it had a vigour and a certainty and was a daring new Carmen.  It w as a collaboration between the company’s music director and Director of Productions with house regulars, all anglophone, in three of the leading roles.

Fast forward and the ENO no longer has a Director of Productions and this production, by Calixto Bieito was first seen in Spain in 1999.  The Carmen and Don Jose were making their company debuts (one from the States, the other Romanian).  Moreover, this is the second of three “new” production this season which has originated elsewhere, none of which wre co-productions and two of which were more than a decade old.

I don’t know whether this is good or bad.  Buying in successful productions, particularly of unfamiliar operas, can be a good way of enabling us to see them – Julietta, Die Tote Stadt and Mathilde di Shabran spring to mind and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to see an important production that originated elsewhere.  But that doesn’t stop some regret that the company can’t produce its own production or invite Bieito to create his vision of another opera.  I think that it’s more serious that they no longer have the wherewithal to cast the leads from their own regular members. Typically, you would use Carmen as an opportunity to give company regulars a stab at the roles.  Was there really nobody suitable available?  Whatever the virtues of the evening, it was a reminder of change which is not necessarily for the better.

A couple of days after seeing Pountney’s production, I saw Graham Vick’s at Scottish Opera, which sticks in my mind as one of the finest Carmens that I’ve seen.  It was set on a black revolving set with, as I recall, a doorway which raised and fell.  Costumes were fairly traditional but the bare stage allowed a concentration on the relationships and the essence of the opera.

I mention these two because it’s interesting to note the contrasts and similarities with Calixto Bieito’s production.  Like Pountney’s, it’s updated and has a fascination with cars. Like Vick’s, it uses a very sparse set and concentrates on the relationships and tensions: both had the Act IV duet for Carnen and Escamillo with them alone on the stage, making it a touching, intimate moment that heightens the tragedy of what comes later.

As lots of people have remarked, this production was controversial for being much less controversial than might have been expected.  For much of the first two acts, I found it interesting but unengaging. I thought that Bieito missed some of the wit and spectacle of the work. I think this was partly because the dialogue was very heavily cut (I’d guess that less than 5% remained). I also felt that a production set obviously in Franco’s Spain does not have the same resonance for an English audience.  So the opening chorus of bored soldiers here is of soldiers upright, on parade, with a soldier in his underpants running circuits round them.  You get the sense of a repressive state and also a discussion of sexuality in Spain.  There’s a lot of male flesh on display: during the prelude to Act III, a naked man gently mimics a bull-fighter’s moves which made for a very beautiful effect.  The women are treated as sex objects: there’s a pent up sexual tension.  It’s a very dark, serious view and one that avoids the glamour and colour that’s in the score.

Where I started to get interested was at the moment where José tells Carmen he has to return to the barracks.  Suddenly the tension ratcheted up and the conflict between the two began.  This led to a rivetting last scene where Ruxana Donose and Adam Diegel struck sparks off each other.  They were imprisoned in a circle, giving an idea of a bull-ring and, at the end, José slits her throat, like a bulls.  This was a great presentation of a destructive relationship.  In this reading, Michaela is a strong, vibrant, angry modern woman who has no fear of Carmen, Escamillo not particularly glamorous and, overall, the atmosphere is dark with little that’s spectacular or to lighten the gloom.  Nor, however, was there much that you felt was there for the sake of shocking.  It’s a thoughtful, interesting, very coherent production of the opera concentrating on the darker side.  I’m glad to have seen it.

I thought that Ruxandra Donose made a very fine Carmen.  Her rich mezzo sounds really good.  She caught the ambivalent amorality of the part even if I wasn’t convinced about the allure that she surely ought to have exercised over men.  Her English was good, though accented.  I couldn’t help feeling that this was someone who should be singing the role in French at the Royal Opera House or Glyndebourne.  Mr Diegel looked good as José. I was less convinced vocally: it’s a dry sounding voice that lacked the tenderness needed for the Flower song or the duet with Michaela.  He was better in the more dramatic, violent moments but, vocally, I wasn’t convinced that he was in the same league as his Carmen.

This was the first time that I’d encountered Elizabeth Llewellyn.  I was hugely impressed by the size and timbre of the voice.  There’s a quality and beauty there that really makes you listen to her.  I wasn’t completely convinced that Michaela is her part.  For all the creamy, beauty of her voice, there are colours and a size there that strike me as more suitable for Verdi – it’s interesting that she’ll be doing Amelia for ETO.  I even found myself wondering if there wasn’t a Carmen in there sometime as well.  She has a strong, positive stage presence.

Leigh Melrose made an efficient, not terribly glamorous Escamillo and the smaller parts were pretty well done, with Duncan Rock fine as Morales and Rhian Lois and Madeleine Shaw giving a a very nice double act as Frasquite and Mercedes (patently jealous of each other over the cards).  The chorus were in very strong form indeed and acted its heart out.  You couldn’t doubt the commitment to the concept and the performance.

Martin Fitzpatrick was conducting.  I thought it was an efficient performance, with perfectly good playing from the orchestra, but nothing that particularly stuck in my memory.

I tend to be quite picky about the Carmens that I go to: it’s an opera that easily becomes routine.  I’m glad I saw this one which made for one of the most coherent visions of it that I’ve seen.  That said, it was also a limited one that missed some aspects of the opera, even though it also opened up a view of it that, on its own terms convinced me.  I’m not sure that it was a “must see” for London and I hope that, next time, ENO finds a way of producing its own opera that creates the excitement of David Pountney’s and finds a way of convincing us that it still has a form of company and talent that it’s keen to develop.


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