Calixto Bietio’s interpretative decisions usually upset either sensibilities or preconceptions. I for one greatly enjoy his bizarre tamperings and excursions into opera. It may be Regie, but it is intelligent regie. More than any other director, Bieito’s choices always refract the modern world through opera’s lens: no mean feat for works that might be hundreds of years old. Which is why this staging of Carmen was surprising: it wasn’t greatly upsetting or contentious.
Granted, Carmen’s death was rather sadistic, not a knife in the guts, more an execution – but on the whole Bieito’s production is remarkably faithful in tone and intent to the original. The setting is essentially modern: his women are (let’s put it this way) liberated. The cigarette girls definitely enjoy their allure. Soldiers are sex obsessed boors, the smugglers aren’t for instance people trafficers or narcotic runners, there were no mud-baths (Lady Macbeth of Mtensk) no Ringst-esque geometric nightmares (their fruitful partnerships comes later in his ouevre) as in his Fidelio. No men on toilets (A Masked Ball) here. Nothing more dangerous than a bit of an updating into semi-modern era.
The set itself is sparse and staging easily understood. Bright orange light suggests the Spanish sun, Spanish flags are draped or hang limply from a pole (one imagines Bieito, a Castilian, had wanted for a long time to direct this production). The soldiers are dressed as soldiers, the women garbed somewhere between Friday-night going out clothes and hookers (the implication is that in fact most of them are on the game, as money is freely and contemptuously tossed at them). There are lots of cars (in a cute gag, all are Mercedes Benz – there is nothing virginal about these women) which are pushed or driven onstage, and Escamillo the toreador dressed as a toreador. At the start, the soldiers sing “People are very strange you know” and usually with Bieito that is his chief concern, but here it’s all really quite faithful in spirit and manner and it works quite well.
Partly this is due to the story (“Carmen” is pretty surefire and can suffer a lot before it grinds to a halt, although I recall one performance with Daniel Oren where it did just that) and partly this is due to the casting.
Discovery of the afternoon was hearing Eric Cutler. He excelled as Don José. His lyrical tenor soars. With good diction, and quite a “modern” feel to it (i.e. no mawkishness, no overdone mannerisms, just straight ahead strong singing) it was a pleasure to hear. Only a tiny hint of nasality on a few “you”‘s (done by many, easily forgiven) very occasionally made themselves noticed in an otherwise really fine performance. Tall and broad, his manner has the potential for heroics too, but Don Jose is here played a bit “beta” – a nice guy who falls for the wrong woman.
A highpoint was his duet with the equally charming Eleanor Dennis as Micaëla – perhaps the second strongest performance of the afternoon. Hearing it alone one would have thought it lovely, but of course Bieito cannot countenance the purely lovely, it must be for him beatitude (one recalls the famous “descending quartet” in his Fidelio) or nothing: thus Micaëla and Don José essentially grope one another, she lands a big smacker of a kiss on his mouth and it all becomes semi-Oedipal as they sing of motherly love, but give themselves over to carnality under its gaze. Text fought action and the son sullied the mother: necessary? not really. Pure Bieito? Definiely. Dennis showed us excellent diction, an ease of emission, and a more than pleasing tone too, allied to a good dramatic ability – happily shared by Cutler himself too, that same duet, (Parle-moi de ma mère!) being delivered winningly by both.
Later on, Micaëla’s Act III aria urging Don J home had Cutler’s best note of the night, in “Come, we must go” – very fine indeed, and Act IV had his best acting, convincing as the desperate, rejected lover of this most desperate women.
Desperate is not how I would describe Justina Gringyte‘s performance, but I was less convinced by her than the two previously mentioned singers. Dramatic ability she had and commitment too, but there was something about her voice which didn’t sit well with me. It may not, by the sound of it sit well with her either vocally (yet I gather she has and continues to sing the role all over the world) but something felt a bit off to me. At one point I thought “Dido” rather than “Carmen”. She was perhaps lacking a bit of fire?
This may have been due to Sir Richard Armstrong who in his conducting chose a very no-nonsense approach. All instruments sounded fine (the ENO orchestra always play their hearts out, and the brass was excellent here) but the overture could have used a tad more jingle, the opening of Act I a bit more shimmer, the clock sounding a bit more pulsing, and Carmen’s Habanera a bit more spice. This feeling that something was slightly lacking – from the podium and not the players – undergirt the afternoon.
With this as background, Gringyte had to work hard to deliver the requisite seduction. It is of course difficult to shimmy, sashay and seduce your beleaguered corporal when tied to a flagpole by a belt (“Tra-la-la-Coupe-moi, brûle-moi, and indeed, there’s lots of coupe-ing in general, and horse and belt-whipping in this piece – a Bieito speciality) but a bit more time to languidly linger on the notes would have helped. In addition, “love is an eagle soaring across the sun” doesn’t quite trip off the tongue as easily as “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” nor does it coyly suggest flightiness, but I guess there’s an eagle on the Spanish flag in this show…? Christopher Cowell‘s translation tackled a tough job and it didn’t jar the ear too badly.
All others sang Cowell’s words well, especially Leigh Melrose, whose Escamillo had a sure grasp of line and playfulness with meter and phrasing. He breathed life into his role. Melrose’s interpretive choices are always fine, phrases were clipped or pushed to suit, emphases added and nuance offered, musically very strong. I was less taken with the production’s portrayal of Escamillo as some kind of spiv (so much so that on reflection, I wondered if Act III is not all Escamillo’s dream – the acclaim, the violence etc) and I was reminded of Mr Melrose’s excellent turn in Peter Grimes…where he played a spiv. Wide-eyed and winky, his was an Escamillo far removed from the lantern-jawed hero we know from other versions of this tale.
The always excellent ENO Chorus sung well (despite a weird out of sync moment in the basses in Act I) as did the chorus of children who had obviously been expertly coached. They were gutsy, eyes wide and going for it, excellent to see. Future ENO chorus members perhaps?
Frasquita isn’t the biggest role, but Rhian Lois made good work of it. Worryingly she was cast yet again (after ROH’s Flute where she was Papagena) as an extremely attractive girl with hardly any clothes on, but this time her character had a startling addiction to Bombay Sapphire. I could smell the booze from Row H (a £20 Secret Seat, thank you ENO!) which was another nice touch.
Against Clare Presland‘s Mercedes, Lois’ acting was a times a little too pantomimey but this was forgiven, mainly because she is extremely attractive, and mainly ’cause she sings well too*. (In another cute Bieito moment, both girls contemptuously raid Micaëla’s handbag as she sings to Don José of home, Fraquita tossing aside her crucifix, and Mercedes looking for money. Bieito again: beauty must always be perverted.)
Quite a lot happens aside from the singing of course, Lots of cars get variously smacked, slapped, trod upon, cavorted in; a phone booth (complete with dirty postcards) gets kicked in; a man in his underpants runs round and round with an FN-FAL rifle until he collapses and is whipped for real; Carmen removes her underpants for real; a man (unsure if Leigh Melrose) opens Act III by stripping naked and slapping his body in the dark under a 40 foot high dangling bull advert, a woman is hoisted up a flagpole after being semi-willingly molested, a voung female child in too-adult makeup decorates a pine tree in tiny Spanish flags and is later inducted in how to seduce a man – with her body; oral sex is intimated, rape nearly performed, many nude-torsoed men run around fighting each other, and women fight men and each other and Carmen gets her throat brutally cut. The usual Bieto-madness and shock and dazzle, but as above, it’s actually not all that shocking. I took offense at very little.
That said, the inclusion of Toussaint Meghe’s Lillias Pastia as some kind of panama-hatted Mediterranean Drosselmeyer was jarring, though eh invested that voiceless role with gravitas. Some slightly more menacing smugglers (Jeffrey Dolton, Alun Rhys-Jenkins) would have been nice too: these guys were more like booze-cruisers than cartel operatives. So too hearing Graeme Danby’s admittedly marvellous (yet slight sore-throated!) native Geordie accent when talking to Carmen in one of the few opera-comique moments here retained was a bit odd: Geordie orders, George Humphries‘ Moralès issuing orders in Spanish, Gringyte’s Baltic accent singing and an English translation of a French text set in Spain…it got a bit dizzying if one thought about it – which one shouldn’t too much, and that’s part of the fun.
In summary, even though Carmen herself didn’t move me, I enjoyed the show. It is on in cinemas on July 1st, and well worth catching.
ENO SCREEN (ENO in Cinemas)
* that said, Lois was pitch perfect acting drunk, and more could have followed her less is moe approach: a little less “waheey! I’m drunk!” acting from all might have been better here but I recall Michael Caine’s dictum that to act drunk is very difficult indeed.