Bizet’s Carmen is one of the most well known pieces of classical music, let alone operas, of all time. Everyone has heard Escamillo’s ‘Toreador Song’, and with the overture used on the Formula 1 podium and the like it has become part of our aural psyche. Perhaps more than any other opera, people come to see Carmen for a good time. It may have a sad ending, but its energy, fun and familiarity are aspects many are drawn to when choosing something to see at the theatre.
This revival of Calixto Bieito’s production is suitably lusty and enticing and with the right amount of tongue-in-cheek humour. Brought forward to a modern setting, this Spain is still filled with petty criminals, prostitutes and bull fighters. The stage for the most part is bare, a faint dusty circle in the centre resembles a bull ring and we feel the theatre of this piece from the very moment the curtain rises. This simple set, accompanied by dramatic lighting, makes for some very effective visuals, which were one of the strongest elements of this production. The use of cars to frame the stage is a nice touch, and this, with the inclusion of a huge collapsible bull, made for some very dramatic choreographed set changes.
Act I of Carmen takes a while to get going, and a challenge to any director to keep the audience interested – the first half alone is around 90 minutes. To combat this Bieto fills the stage with running bodies. At times it is too busy, and the focus of the scene can become lost under the many and frequent lusting acts of the chorus of soldiers and gypsies. This is, however, a minor criticism.
Eric Cutler is a little awkward as Don Jose, but a passionate voice and portrayal eventually won us over with a thoroughly memorable performance. Opposite him, Justina Gringyte feels right at home as Carmen, enticing all around her – and her debut in the role! Hers is a dark and sultry voice, compared to the bright sonority of Cutler. It is sometimes difficult to hear her words, but her murky aura suits the part perfectly.
After a slow beginning, I warmed to this production and the opera throughout the evening. I must admit Act IV was very thrilling, filled with real energy and joy in the choruses and a touching finale. Carmen at ENO is an uplifting experience for the most part, with some lovely moments including a sole nude dancer, rowdy chorus scenes and cheeky children. You come out singing tunes; there’s not much better than that for an evening’s entertainment.
Carmen is playing at The Coliseum until 3 July. For more information and tickets, see the ENO website.