If opera is so frequently about passions of the heart, then Carmen must be the ultimate. Few stories bristle with sexual tension quite like this.
On a basic level, Carmen is a story about a commitment-phobe who falls for a flirt. Love and lust become inseparable, as the characters fall in and out of love at the flip of a coin, Latin fire blurring their emotions – or maybe it’s just the Spanish heat. Its themes of love and desire are easily relatable, meaning this is a story that lends itself to reinterpretation. Here, director Calixto Bieito sets the opera in modern day (now revived by Joan Anton Rechi): Don José (Eric Cutler) is one of many burly soldiers in aviator sunglasses working in a Spanish prison, who falls for the blonde Barbie bombshell Carmen (Justina Gringyte), before she runs off to her Mafia-esque gypsy friends in the desert. The cheaply tarted up Micaëla (Eleanor Dennis), José’s ignored lover from home, takes a selfie with him as a memento of her unsuccessful seduction. Escamillo (Leigh Melrose), smartly suited, is the Beckham of the bull fighting world.
If there’s one thing this Carmen nails, it’s the sex. Soldiers lustily hump the floor, knickers are hastily removed, there’s male nudity, and plenty of raw sensuality throughout. Whether this is artistic or mere titillation is down to taste. At any rate, this gritty and realistically portrayed production is perhaps aiming to engage a younger audience, but it’s torn between believability and the stylised theatricality of the genre. Some oddly static staging and overwrought melodrama hold back the storytelling.
More awkward is the libretto, translated by Christopher Cowell. As with all ENO productions, this is sung in English, immediately losing the poetry of the original French. It’s as if there are too many words and syllables to fit each melody, leading to a disjointed, rushed and staccato delivery that loses the natural rhythmic flow of the music. It’s a criticism that’s only exacerbated during the chorus numbers. ENO can’t be faulted here for adhering to their own remit, but the issues of translation seem more apparent with such a well-known piece as this.
Sir Richard Armstrong conducts a lively and buoyant orchestra, that occasionally threatens to overpower the singing. Gringyte’s Carmen has a lithe and sensual voice to match her character, believable in both her flirtations and her vulnerability; by contrast Cutler’s José sings well but somewhat lumbers around the stage area. More impressive is Dennis as Micaëla, who sings with the utmost control.
There is some wonderful yet simple imagery, but for the most part the set design of Alfons Flores leaves the set to the bare minimum: a flagpole or a car. This works for the final bullring showdown between the leads, but elsewhere it’s a little empty. As with the production as a whole, it’s as if something is missing – this is a solid, if unspectacular, performance.
Watch: Carmen runs at the Coliseum until 3rd July.