ENO Response 2022/23: Carmen Reviews
16th March 2023 in News
ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.
Calixto Bieito’s fiery Carmen returns to the London Coliseum. Its third revival since it was first staged in 2012, this is one of the most popular operas ever written, featuring Bizet’s instantly recognisable searing score.
A tale of love, obsession and jealousy, soldier Don José finds himself unable to resist cigarette worker Carmen’s charm, even when he is supposed to be guarding her prison cell. The tumultuous affair that begins between the pair comes to an abrupt halt when Carmen turns her attention to bullfighter Escamillo. Don José’s love soon turns to jealousy and anger.
Director Calixto Bieito’s production effortlessly transports the story to an early 1970s Spanish Colony, near the end of dictator Francisco Franco’s regime.
Georges Bizet (1838-1875)
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy after Prosper Mérimée
Conductor, Kerem Hasan (Olivia Clarke, 22 Feb)
Director, Calixto Bieito
Revival Director, Jamie Manton
ENO has had no editorial input in the reviews. All views are their own.
ENO Responders 22/23
Full to the brim with drama and promiscuity, Calixto Bieto’s ‘Carmen’ returns to the Coliseum for its third revival. I arrived not knowing what to expect, apart from a single adjective courtesy of my music teacher – ‘raunchy’.
The production began with a scarcely clothed man running around the stage with a gun – I must say that his stamina was commendable. Although humping the Spanish flag is a questionable demonstration of patriotism, the choreography was original and energetic; I could sense the testosterone pumping through the guards’ veins. The ardent end to Act 1 (think bright white lights, full chorus, completely downstage), was followed by something quite different. Sparse blue lighting, a lyrical flute solo and a sole matador – from an attack on the senses to virtually nothing.
In terms of the libretto, many sections of spoken dialogue were cut, leaving the audience with unanswered questions about Don José’s past and the situation with his mother. Keel Watson’s cockney accent, representing the social hierarchy, stuck out alongside the other Americanised characters. Christopher Cowell’s translation was largely effective but meant that the eagerly anticipated ‘Habanera’ was somewhat underwhelming.
On her ENO debut, Italian-American mezzo Ginger Costa-Jackson did not disappoint. Having performed the title role in opera houses across the world, her characterisation and projection were strong. Her eventual, graphic, death was further dramatised by some unsettling groans.
Sean Panikkar’s ‘Don José’ evolved from a stereotypically heroic tenor to a borderline psychopath. He returns to the role with confidence, highly praised in his 2020 performance with the company; ‘The Flower Song’ was a particular highlight. Covering for an illness, ENO debutant Carrie-Ann Williams impressed as Micaëla. Unlike the typical side-lined soprano, her aria in the second act had great depth and warmth. Even though the opera doesn’t allow much space for her character to develop, the audience could imagine a lifetime of experiences through her singing.
The intense lighting throughout, combined with the minimalist set, made for a quasi-cinematic experience. Of course, cars and an (abused) telephone booth featured as characteristic elements of Bieto’s production. The fall of the bull silhouette in Act 2 must be the most striking set change I have ever witnessed; various jaws dropped when it hit the floor, as if pre-choreographed.
Conductor Kerem Hasan conducted the overture with energy reminiscent of Gustavo Dudamel, recently elevated to the role of director of the New York Philharmonic. The chorus stands out in every ENO production but the addition of children from two local primary schools was particularly special. It added a layer of playfulness to an otherwise emotionally heavy opera and illustrates the company’s exemplary outreach efforts.
In all, the ENO has brought us a modern interpretation of a timeless opera. Carmen is held up as an icon of rebellion and sexual liberty, but Bieto demonstrates the unfortunate reality of an unsubmissive woman in Francoist Spain: objectification and, essentially, slut-shaming. ‘Raunchy’ was definitely the perfect word to sum up this production.
Carmen 2023 – Dark, dangerous, enchanting
1970s Spain. Franco’s reign is nearing its end. Carmen’s, however, is only just beginning. The ENO’s decision to revive Calixto Bieito’s dark, dusky production of Carmen for the third time is a bold one, yet the production (directed by Jamie Manton) is a highlight of the season so far. Christopher Cowell’s translation does a fine job of capturing the performance’s push and pull between freedom and constraint, poetry and ugliness. The translated Habenera, for instance, an aria so well known it can easily sink into cliché, rises in a beautiful lilt that captures the meaning and charm of the original yet remains poetic rather than derivative. Ginger Costa-Jackman as Carmen delivers this perfectly, showcasing a delicate yet resonant mezzo-soprano voice? channelled into sultry seduction.
From the start, patriarchal control, male violence and sex are blended as one in the production: one sees, for instance, the large ensemble cast of militia running around the stage, chasing the women and pounding on Carmen’s phone booth with an equal mixture of violence and passion. A high point of the show is the duet between bullfighter Escamillo (Nmon Ford) and Carmen’s lover Jose (Sean Panikkar). Competing over the same woman, their struggle for masculine dominance resembles a bullfight in its back-and-forth pull, ably assisted by conductor Kerem Hassan’s passionate yet controlled delivery of Bizet’s richly nuanced, sweeping, score; similarly, Ford’s rich, velvet baritone (a true highlight of the show) enhances his graceful yet threatening stage presence. Carmen, free-spirited and dominant, runs rings around the men who desire her, yet Costa-Jackman’s superb performance also shows how frightened she is at moments, with her head held high yet trembling all over when being threatened by the smugglers, or shouted at by her lover Jose. Panikkar’s rich tenor ranges beautifully between soft pleas and shouted threats, culminating in a deranged attempt at rape (pinpointing the uneasiness of the male-dominated power dynamic). Furthermore, both performers are superb actors as well as singers: Jose’s increasingly unhinged jealousy and Carmen’s ever-quickening flights between confident seductress and victim in danger show how unhealthy their relationship is. The stellar performance of pure village maiden Michaela (Gemma Summerfield) further provides a counterpoint to Carmen and Jose’s fraught relationship with her sweet and pure vocals, an occasional light in the darkness that threatens to engulf them both.
The production ultimately felt like an extension of Carmen’s mind: a murky, intoxicating whirlwind filled with passionate supporting characters who prevented the show from slipping into ‘main-character monotony’. The nude dance beginning Act Three, for instance, was a perfect blend of uncanny and sensual that foreshadowed the confused storm of love and emotion to come, while Alfons Flores’s mostly minimal set design (barring the brooding bull that weighed over the characters as they fought) concentrated our attention on how the characters intertwined with the music. The emotional fever-pitch reached when Carmen and Jose were in the ring alone ultimately vindicated a pared-down set: as their whole worlds collapsed into each other, the audience too held their breath.
Bullish Carmen Runs in Circles
An austere backlit bull towers over vintage cars flooding headlights into a packed Coliseum for the third revival of Calixto Bieito’s punchy and masculine Carmen. Unfortunately, Bieito’s interpretation of Bizet’s blue-balled ballad of forbidden love felt cynical and dated with performances that undersold its mystique on opening night.
While Bieito’s production throws its weight around, it fails to grab the bull by its horns. Thematically, Bieito’s Carmen overemphasises the gender binary. Set in a culture of machismo in a bellicose period of Spain’s history just at the cusp of change, the stage is set for a nuanced look at changing gender power dynamics.
However, a forceful male presence doesn’t allow space for interplay with Carmen’s female characters. It’s a world of masculine and feminine that intends to speak to power over (read: dominance) versus power from within (read: seduction). Instead, an oppressively male staging creates a new masculine-feminine paradigm: Violence versus apathy.
Throughout the first act, Carmen is more disinterested than seductive. Ginger Costa-Jackson delivers strong vocals as Carmen with a coy, understated personality. She walks flatly across the stage and engages emotionlessly with the smitten soldiers surrounding her. Fortunately, she hits a few flamenco-inspired poses that remind us of her motives. Carmen’s desire for Don Jose is less believable in the absence of sensuality.
Don Jose and his cast of Franco-era soldiers are virile and domineering. They bound across the stage, easily filling the sparse set with fatigue-clad testosterone. At its best the production highlights the futility and arrogance in the fragile hierarchy of power-by-force. At one point a soldier is hazed into running around the stage, rifle in hand, naked except for boots. He bursts forth, then jogs, then slows, and falls. Visually, we see the show’s testosterone taper as scenes progress.
Conductor Kerem Hasan carried the banner of boyish enthusiasm in his fast-and-furious conducting. At times, the chorus, which sounded half its size on opening night, struggles to keep pace and project over a powerful orchestra.
Carrie-Ann Williams proved the night’s standout performance as a last-minute cover for Michaela. Williams resonant and warm mezzo-soprano sounded wise and passionate. Williams sold the performance convincingly when onstage, even in a redacted Carmen that sees much of Michaela’s backstory missing. This was a formidable ENO debut for a rising star. This was the passion we have yearned for all evening.
In the end, the story came together successfully. The visual elements clicked in. Bizet’s big bangers were punchy and satisfying. It was a formidable operatic performance and one that is received warmly by the first-time opera goers around me. Though, as I peered through the smoke curling off Carmen’s cigarette, I searched unsuccessfully for the fire in the performance.
However, despite its jealous and unforgiving namesake, Carmen is a deeply forgiving opera. Endlessly singable melodies, chewy themes, and a few delicious and surprising visuals kick up the adrenaline and make for an enjoyable night at the London Coliseum, even if this bullish Carmen runs in circles.
‘Love is like death’: Bieito’s provocative Carmen
English National Opera’s third revival of Bizet’s Carmen was a stellar opening to the spring operatic season, delivering everything one would dream of from one of the world’s most renowned operas – High drama, lust, jealousy, obsession, ill-fate and murder. Under the direction of Calixto Bieito alongside Kerem Hasan’s gripping conducting of a score so brilliant and memorable it often transcends the opera itself, we are transported to 1970s Spain where sexual deviance and debauchery are rampant amongst the army ranks and where, as a soldier in the first scene put it, ‘love is like death’.
The opera follows the dutiful soldier Don Jose’s (Sean Panikkar) gradual deterioration as he falls deeply in love with the elusive seductress Carmen (Ginger Costa-Jackson), but this love story is ill-fated. Carmen weaponises her charm on Don Jose to escape imprisonment, persuades him to abandon his army posting and leaves his ill mother and childhood sweetheart Micaëla (Carrie-Ann Williams) behind to join a band of smugglers. After a passionate but toxic love affair, Carmen’s eyes drift towards the chivalrous, but quite arrogant, bullfighter Escamillo (Nmon Ford).
The production depicts immorality, lawlessness and, most importantly, the mistreatment of women in a visually striking, visceral and very real manner as we see sexual harassment by soldiers towards women and physical violence inflicted on Carmen by her lover. The story concludes with an extremely envious, vengeful Don Jose descending into murderous insanity as he cannot stand the thought of Carmen with another man, killing her in cold-blood.
Ginger Costa-Jackson was born for the role of Carmen, her siren voice and feline-like movements are the true embodiment of the femme fatale. Costa-Jackon’s impressive, vivacious mezzo-soprano vocals hypnotised the audience into silent admiration as she performed the famous ‘Habanera’, flaunting her versatility with ease in her ENO debut. Sean Panikkar reprises his role of Don Jose at ENO and did not disappoint, matching his on-stage lover’s fiery passion with his lyrical mastery which possesses a soothing yet menacing quality as we witness his character’s villain origin story. Ford as Escamillo was charming and confident as he delivered his lines with crisp, neat vocals much like his character’s appearance. Williams stepped in at the last minute to play the role of Micaëla, adding an adorably gauche quality to her role as the helplessly in love and devoted peasant girl.
Alfons Flores’s harsh and bleak set design consisted of a flagpole, a vandalised telephone box and an enormous Osborne bull as the stage backdrop in the Second Act, a symbol of Spanish pride but also the fate of Carmen as her new love for a bullfighter is her demise. The ENO chorus were joined by a children’s chorus, filling the stage with vibrancy and vitality which nicely contradicted the heavier, darker aspects of the opera. This tragic, provocative tale has a timeless, captivating quality to it and the cast certainly lived up to the opera’s reputation.
Lust, jealousy, and rampant misogyny are not typically the ingredients of a successful birthday party, but for ENO’s celebration of their 92nd , with Bizet’s Carmen, they proved just the ticket. Returning for the third time, Calixto Bieito’s production, set in 1970s Francoist Spain, is all heat, bodies, and blood.
Dusty smoke hangs over a stage ringed in white chalk-dust. A man stripped to his underwear and boots runs laps around this barren arena, his absurdist punishment setting the stage for the cruelty that follows. His eventual collapse, his compatriots dragging him offstage, foreshadows the opera’s tragic end.
Revived by Jamie Manton, Bieito’s production emphasised the brute physicality and violence of Carmen’s world as a microcosm of Spain’s former fascist regime. A woman is hoisted up a flagpole as men crowd beneath her; wolf-whistling accompanied the female chorus as they threaded through the ranks to cross their legs over the edge of the stage, while soldiers swarmed over and penetrated the phone-box from which Carmen (Ginger Costa-Jackson) first emerges.
Carmen’s opening Habanera was quietly seductive, but the ensuing acting and singing was better; her finale scene with a well-sung Don José (Sean Panikkar) captivated. Ginger Costa-Jackson opted for molten passion over flaming outbursts as her toes slid suggestively across the sand; her face contorted in mocking laughter and white-eyed fear; and her distinctive mezzo-soprano breathed life into the defiant Carmen.
In the opera’s other famous aria, the Toreador’s Song, Nmon Ford (Escamillo) failed to muster up the suavity of his later scenes as he struggled in the lower register and was occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra, conducted by a lively Kerem Hasan. Instead, it was the naïve Micaëla (Carrie-Ann Williams, standing in on the night for an indisposed Gemma Summerfield) the soprano foil to the sultry Carmen’s mezzo, who delivered the night’s most moving arias. Williams’ clear, high notes, tender dynamic control, and masterful characterisation won her a deservedly huge ovation at the end of the night.
The children, from ENO’s Engage programme with two local primary schools, sang happily into the crowd and the clever staging of rope across the stage against which the crowds clamoured was dynamic and engaging. Frasquita (Alexandra Oomens) and Mercédès (Niamh O’Sullivan), Carmen’s gypsy friends, also helped create atmosphere amidst the often-sparse staging (Act 2’s fleet of Mercedes saloons notwithstanding). Always in heels, they exuded kitsch glamour; Oomens raving to the beat of the music, gin bottle in hand, was a highlight.
Over the boozy dancing looms the silhouette of a huge bull, a symbol of the brewing violence of Carmen. Bizet’s score ripples with ominous undercurrents as the tension masterfully rises through the acts. ENO’s 92nd birthday was well celebrated with this revival.
A wonderful thing to see and hear
As the curtain comes up, a man stumbles drunkenly onto the stage of London’s Coliseum wearing slick 1970s gear. In Catalan director Calixto Bieito’s Carmen, revived for the third time since its 2012 debut, we subsequently meet emboldened soldiers, a semi-nude gunman running laps under the arid light until he collapses, and women suggestively puffing on cigarettes. They all contribute to the hot, volatile atmosphere cultivated from the outset.
The last decade was dogged by canonical works scruffily pasted onto late 20th century dictatorships on the brink of collapse, like Ralph Fiennes’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Yet Bieito’s Carmen is a genuinely meaningful application of this trend. Reimagined near some Spanish border in the latter days of the Franco regime, revival director Jamie Manton brings equal measures of boldness and delicacy to his stylisation. Aware that Bizet was French, Bieito caricatures the Spain of that time in the eyes of foreign stereotypes: this is best symbolised in Act IV, when a throng of spectators gaze upon a woman reclining in the sun before Escamillo’s bullfight. (This playfully forebodes the birth of Ryanair in the next decade.)
Our cultural attitude towards the key themes Bieito first teased out of Carmen over a decade ago has changed greatly. Discussions around slut-shaming, toxic masculinity and the ramifications of colonisation are now much more prominent within mainstream discourse, and power is at their nexus. The women pit their intellectual and strategic power against the men’s brutish strength. The sinister presence of sexual violence, culminating first in José assaulting Carmen and his eventual murder of her, is always nearby.
It shows at her ENO debut that mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson has played the role before. Her sharp yet bombastic movement in the ‘Habanera’ aria matched her headstrong voice. Costa-Jackson’s Carmen knows what she wants: every move and word has clear purpose, and is a display for the men. Sean Panikkar reprises his Don José from Carmen’s last revival. His performance as the aimlessly ardent lover spills over into his voice and captures the spirit of the reckless soldier with nothing to lose. On opening night, Carrie-Ann Williams also debuted at ENO as Micaëla, since Gemma Summerfield was unwell; her voice and attitude shone righteously in the midst of everyone else’s baseness. Kerem Hasan’s conducting fits the pace of the action at all times.
Carmen’s recognisable score, in tandem with its alluring backdrop and costumes, would make a perfect first opera, especially for a generation obsessed with aesthetics. (I took as many fashion notes as I did critical ones.) The response to the curtain call was wonderful, and Williams’s first bow on that stage was a finishing touch that made it just a little sweeter.
Overplayed and Underwhelming – ENO Needs a New Crowd-Pleaser
‘El amor es como la muerte’ – Love is like death. The opening sentence of Catalan director Calixto Bieito’s adaption of Bizet’s tale of the gypsy girl ominously sets the scene for the drama that is to unfold over four acts, set against a 1970s backdrop dripping in sun, sweat, and simmering tension.
It is in a Spanish colony, nearing Franco’s final days that free-spirited Carmen and supposedly honourable soldier Don José begin their tumultuous love affair that crumbles amidst the former’s affair with the charismatic matador Escamillo.
Given that ENO has already staged Bieito’s renowned production several times, the standards were set high and there was an unfortunate lack of deliverance. Soaked in gratuitous violence that bordered on excessive in Act Two, this adaptation relied on such prolonged frenetic physical action that Bizet’s score became entangled in the performers’ limbs. The repetition of throwing the gypsy girls into and on top of cars felt like a cheap way to shock the audience.
The star trio of Ginger Costa-Jackson, Sean Panikkar, and Nmon Ford as Carmen, Don José, and Escamillo brought to life the tragic love triangle with vocal fire against a confusing set that switched between an arid stage that held only a telephone box and a flagpole, to a bullring with an equally imposing and overbearing cut-out bull. As an experienced Carmen, Costa-Jackson’s ‘it-girl’ was played with a seductive snarl as she danced barefoot on stage, running between her various lovers, and her guttural mezzo-soprano was a breath of fresh air into a piece that runs the risk of being overplayed, helped by Christopher Cowell’s faithful translation.
The consistent change in set staging, however, created a confusing direction for the production, relying on sparse sets with extravagant props which included several cars being wheeled on and offstage. The chorus felt overwhelmingly large, a difficult feat to achieve on a stage as deep as the Coliseum’s. There is such a thing as too much, even for an opera as dramatic as Carmen. The principals were drowned in the crowd of the chorus which meant that the star power and vocal quality of Costa-Jackson, Panikkar, and Ford were not showcased as much as they could have been.
The cliches of cars and alcohol to characterise Carmen and her comrades as villainous felt tired, and despite the best efforts of Costa-Jackson, Carmen’s vulnerability was hidden amongst harsh lighting and a heavy woodwind section. Manton’s direction felt as if there was little breathing room to feel sympathy for anyone, and subsequently Ford was robbed of showing little range as Escamillo beyond superficial arrogance and sex appeal; the performance lacked depth.
Ultimately, this was a Carmen of revenge and deceit and nothing else.
The return of Carmen the man eater
Georges Bizet’s phenomenal Carmen returns to the ENO with an all-time classic. Featuring love, envy and tragedy; Calixto Bieito production is set in 1970s Spain with never a dull moment in sight. The stunning Ginger Costa- Jackson as Carmen, is a must see for any woman whose aspirations include being a man eater.
The smoky, sinister opening with one lonesome telephone box matches the foreshadowing ominous overture that follows Carmen throughout all the way till her very last breath. A passionate love story with intense plot twists throughout including a rollercoaster of emotions and catastrophic ending. Carrie- Ann Williams who plays the understudy for Micaela had impeccable voice projection and sang with such elegance. The children harmonising with each other make a great addition and are a delight to the listening ear. Carmen is seen in a seductive blue slip dress, a lace décolletage and a loosely fitted jacket with her long dark locks flowing behind her every step. Truly mesmerising; as is her beautiful facial structure; and a hypnotising stare, Costa- Jackson is definitely a character.
Sean Panikkar, who plays Don Jose portrays his obsessed side when it comes to coercing Carmen. Kerem Hasan does an excellent job with the orchestra dynamic, mimicking what is about to happen next and was very engaging. The touch of the ancient gas-guzzlers being included all over stage was a personal favourite of mine, I have never seen such excellent props and been so engaged with a stage before. Carmen at one point rubs a red handkerchief all over her body and hands it to one of the guards like a villain, amused at seeing other people in awe over the very thought of her. Costa- Jackson is extremely insistent and majestic, even the way she walks is fascinatingly flamboyant. She, like Alexandra Oowens (Frasquita) both have astounding voice projection which fills the theatre.
If you are looking for an opera to mesmerize you, Carmen is definitely the best option. You will certainly have a good time and possibly enter your villain era of taunting men. If seeing many strong topless men is up your alley than Carmen will definitely do the trick for you. However, if attractive men are not your cup of tea, do not stress because if there’s anything better than eyeing up hot attractive young men it would be a hypnotizing transfixing Carmen.
Just what is it that remains so alluring about Carmen? The current revival at the ENO understands and successfully captures its captivating power. From start to finish it remains intoxicating, both Carmen and Don Jose are excellent, and this production centres around their unnerving chemistry, which twists and eddies throughout until the horrifying denouement.
The staging makes the first significant impact of the night. In opening with the Spanish guards, a mood of foreboding and dread is immediately established. The act ends with a female character strung up the flagpole and the sense of the tightening noose is foreshadowed by the first thing that we see on stage; a circling runner, sprinting, tortured until collapse. This motif of circles runs throughout the evening and from the very beginning a zone of belonging and otherness is established. Micaela, played by the fantastic newcomer Carrie – Ann Williams remains firmly on the outside, whilst we observe the journey of Don Jose from the safe centre of belonging, dragged out to the torment of otherness by the alluring and intoxicating Carmen.
Ginger Costa-Jackson is simply mesmerising as Carmen. When she is gone from the stage you are desperate for her to return as she cackles and teases the rest of the cast. Her partnership with Don Jose is so successful because it is so believable, the two actors share a palpable chemistry, and their journey from teasing lovers to violent obsession is striking in its brutal intensity. Her habanera is simply joyful, she owns the stage and this is a truly intimidating “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”, you believe her as she says ‘beware’, she pulls both the audience and the doomed Don Jose into her erotic vortex, of which neither can escape.
It is this journey from honourable soldier to disgraced stalker that provides the spine of the story. Sean Panikkar as Don Jose is extraordinary in capturing this growing sense of embittered at the perceived injustice in Carmen’s rejection and it is to Panikkar’s credit that he is disturbingly believable in portraying Don Jose’s downfall.
Calixto Bieto’s production is a triumph. He presents the final years of Franco’s Spain as a claustrophobic tinder box, where violence and passion are palpable throughout, always threating to explode. This intensity is matched by an excellent measured performance from the orchestra led by Kerem Hasan. Together they have created a timeless and gripping production with a timely focus on the volatility and destructive nature of masculinity.
Tonight marked the first night of the third revival of Bieto’s production and the casting in particular ensured that this is the strongest staging since it opened in 2012. Watch it while you have the chance.
‘Expect a lot of thrusting and otherwise parodic levels of toxic militaristic masculinity’
Carmen is one of the most iconic operas of all time, featuring some of the biggest tunes of the genre. ENO’s revival of their 1999 production reframes this classic story around the end of Franco’s regime, featuring a military outpost, scorching beaches and sizzling romance. To this end, the ENO can pat itself on the back for rolling out a hit that is sure to satisfy audiences.
Our infamous Carmen is played by Ginger Costa-Jackson, who absolutely lives up to her role in every way. From the moment she starts singing, we are treated to a dark, warm tone with buckets of sensational character; this is arguably the finest singing I have heard this season. Her presence dominates the stage, beguiling audience and cast alike. Sean Panikkar also sings well as Carmen’s José, being a powerful, resonant voice throughout. Showing José’s transformation from noble guard to enthralled murderer very effectively. This metamorphosis is catalysed by the degenerative costume changes from Mercè Paloma, where crisp uniforms give way to dirtied civilian clothes. The audience really does see José disintegrate before our very eyes.
Credit is due to Calixto Bieito’s direction and the rest of the cast for creating a lively environment for our duo’s relationship to take its course. Zuniga (Freddie Tong) and Moralès (Benson Wilson), along with their soldiers, are convincingly slimy. Expect a lot of thrusting and otherwise parodic levels of toxic militaristic masculinity from them. Seeing a group of 40 men chasing a single woman around a stage may be nauseating, but this kind of lustful atmosphere does reemphasise the kind of love that Carmen sings about in the famous ‘habanera’. Micaela (Carrie-Ann Williams) provides excellent contrast, being a sincere sweetheart and voice of reason to our wayward José.
Kerem Hasan drew a fantastic sound out of the ENO’s expert orchestra, bringing out vibrant colours and keeping a good balance between the orchestra and cast. The expertly played flute solo in the ‘entr’acte’ (starting acts three and four) sets a false air of calm from the storm that Bizet is about to unleash.
The chorus (directed by Mike Biggins), and especially their children’s chorus from local primary schools, shine in other areas too. There is an energy in the crowd facing the Toreador that gives a complete incongruence to the brutal murder that we are about to witness. This kind of juxtaposition is used to great effect at the end, especially where the ‘toreador song’ plays offstage to Carmen’s death theme, almost as if the music takes a kind of perverse joy in her slaughter. It is difficult to leave the Coliseum without a deep sense of angst at the maddening display of covetous love we have just witnessed.
What a lot of bull
ENO have revived Calixto Bieto’s 2012 production of Carmen for a run of 9 performances at the Coliseum. The production is a fast paced, vivacious Carmen but not without its flaws. The prelude explodes onto stage with Kerem Hansen’s conducting, our first impression, the opening toreador’s March was released with such furious tempo extent that it became a sprint. Percussion and brass dominate the sound from the pit and quash any delicacy.
This production uses the recitatives written by Bizet’s close friend Ernest Guiraud. Bizet died 3 months after the premier and Guiraud stepped in to compose recitatives for the Vienna Staatsoper. The original opera is more spoken than sung and the recitatives do remove a lot of backstory but instead create a much leaner, more focused work.
Ginger Costa-Jackson is Carmen. I cannot stress enough how perfect Costa-Jackson is for this role. She has eye-capturing magnetism, settles into licentiousness naturally and, not least, she sings the role beautifully. Costa-Jackson was my personal favourite performance of Merimée’s wolf-eyed seductress.
Carrie-Ann Williams covered for Gemma Summerfield as Micaëla on opening night. Williams sang Micaëla’s act three aria with full volume but diaphanous delicacy, the highlight of act 3. On a side note, does Micaëla’s heavily Bible based morality still provide the counterpoint to Carmen’s bohemian behaviour as it did in the prurient 19th century? Micaëla feels more like Ned Flanders than José’s Salvation.
The women outshine the men in this production. Sean Panikkar plays Don José, the love interest Carmen creates and destroys. Panikkar was a fine but forgettable José, often left paddling in Costa Jackson’s wake, his singing struggled to convey any emotion until the final scene where we were granted slight reprieve with a shade of pathos at last emerging.
Nmon Ford’s Escamillo was smug and sauntering but fell short of Escamillo’s charisma. One of the best pieces of Carmen is Escamillo’s Toreador song and Ford’s vocals just did not hit hard enough. This may have been down to orchestral balance though as even the full might of the ENO choir was also left drowning in overpowered brass and percussion.
While the staging is set in 1970’s Spain vocal idiosyncrasies abound. Costa Jackson’s unplaceable accent, Panikkar’s awkward Englishness and Keel Watson’s cockney additions drag us towards a Seville on the Isle of dogs. Lighting designer Bruno Poet has evidently been offended by irises previously and wastes no time revenging himself on the audience’s eyes with as many harsh lights beamed into the crowd as the staging can muster.
This Carmen is a vibrant production full of light, sound and, spectacle. It verges at times into the noisy but even for Costa Jackson’s performance alone is well worth seeing.
Carmen: A violent spectacle that lacks musical oomph
Full-sized cars roll on-stage, their lights dazzling the audience. Testosterone-filled soldiers attack a phone box and clamber up a Spanish flagpole, gyrating and whooping. A giant bull looms large like a Trojan horse and a rope holds roaring fans back from the edge of the fighting ring. We’re in the twisted cruel world of Calixto Bieito’s Carmen revival, and it’s a striking production.
Set in the later years of Franco’s Spain, Alfons Flores’ set morphs fluidly and attractively from military base to roadside, to beach, to bullring.
That said, some aspects are a bit overegged. The flower that Carmen drops for Don Jose in the Habanera is a folded red flag, foreshadowing the bullfighting of the second half – and perhaps also the nature of her soon-to-be lover. His childhood sweetheart clicks away with a tourist’s disposable camera, repeatedly taking selfies.
As Carmen, Ginger Costa-Jackson is electrifying. Her Carmen is more unhinged than confident, aware of her eroticism as currency rather than a source of enjoyment. When she longs for freedom, it’s not the hippie dreams of a free spirit but a desperation for a way out of her world.
Her voice is enthralling, her deep mezzo soprano remaining in total control of the Habanera and the seguidilla. Occasionally the depth of her voice and the spitting of words veered her into more of a low Broadway belt, but it didn’t feel out of place.
Sean Pannikar’s Don Jose is competent and vocally strong. He is more of a complex character than is sometimes portrayed, and is less of a brute than a weak, disappointed man.
The chorus is huge, and engaging, supplemented by twenty children from local primary schools to sing with a chorus of women cigarette factory workers and energetically pent-up soldiers.
From the beginning this is a violent production. Blood capsules abound, belts are menaced and the soldiers give off a persistent threat of violence against women. But although the staging is excellent, and the drama is palpable, this production is lacking a bit of musical oomph.
The orchestra is too soft, occasionally drowned out by audience whispers. Nmon Ford’s dashing bullfighter Escamillo is a joy to watch, but he lacks the vocal power to carry off the brash swagger of Toreador. It’s telling when the audience doesn’t applaud one of the smash hits of the opera.
Likewise Carrie-Ann Williams, filling in for illness as Micaela, is an impressive debut but doesn’t quite give the welly to convince on the vocal drama. None of this is helped by a slightly clunky translation (“Death, it will come for myself”).
It’s a solid and visually engaging production of the classic, but it lacks the panache to be spectacular.