It’s probably quite predictable to say that I went into Carmen filled with a more than slight suspicion. I’m twenty years old, I’ve seen one opera in my life, and I have absolutely no idea what Carmen is about. It was a relief, therefore, to discover that not only did I actually recognise some of the music – a step up from last time – but that it is also sung entirely in English. Translated by Christopher Cowell for an English speaking audience, it would be hard not to notice that a very conscious effort has been made to invite into the auditorium those who might not otherwise feel like there’s a lot there for them to find.
In general, I think that those attempts more or less work. I’m hardly in a position to comment on how the directorial choices made by Calixto Bieito compare to a more traditional production, although I have no doubt that at least some of them might leave audience members seeking a more purist adaptation feeling short-changed. A thread, or perhaps a preoccupation, running through this piece would be its awareness of a certain level of violence innate in the world that the characters inhabit. Within moments of the first act opening, we watch a group of women being harrassed by another group of soldiers, with the lyrics suggesting that this is a fairly normal state of affairs. This ebbs and flows through the piece, but never fades away. It’s this recognition of the undercurrent of aggression that actually lets the piece make sense: if it came out of nowhere during the final act or only showed its face at a couple of moments, there would be little justification for the opera’s violent culmination.
To pick a hole, there are a few points at which, to me, the whole thing feels a little over-acted: tension makes way for melodrama, and starts to feel very slightly hard to take seriously. However, it’s also true that the characters inhabit a cavernous space, both in terms of the stage and the Coliseum itself. They have to remain constantly vivid, both in character as well as appearance, or it would be all too easy to be washed away. With that said, a production of this scale with a cast as enormous as this one invites big performances.
My primary takeaway here is that it isn’t really as intimidating as it ‘should’ be. A willingness to part with tradition and to hold onto the original score while developing and changing virtually everything around it obviously opens a lot of doors, and this production embraces its new potential with vigour.
Carmen is playing the London Coliseum until 27 February. For more information and tickets, visit the English National Opera website.