30 Jan 2020

Bieito's Carmen returns to English National Opera

‘Men Behaving Badly’ wouldn’t be a bad subtitle for Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen, currently being revived at ENO.

Setting the action in a Spanish border town or North African colonial outpost in the immediate post-Franco era, Bieito creates a world populated by lascivious soldiers and vicious criminal lowlife. The black air throbs with machismo and testosterone thumps through the veins of the military and smugglers alike. The women - their blingy rags seedy rather provocative - are meat for sexual slaughter, though they are not averse to hair-pulling, cigarette-burning bitch-fests of their own either. The children are beggars.

It’s certainly nasty. At the start, a soldier dressed only in his underpants and carrying a heavy rifle runs in a circle around his military colleagues, a punishment which embodies the ever-tightening twist of a noose. Eventually he collapses and is dragged off, like a carcass. Zuniga gets slammed in a car door. One small child, perilously vulnerable, hovers amid the violence and her innocence seems ripe for ravaging, but Bieito holds back.

Keel Watson, Sean Panikkar, Justina Gringyté.jpg Keel Watson (Zuniga), Sean Panikkar (José), Justina Gringytė (Carmen). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Designer Alfons Flores offers no ‘set’ as such, just a flag-pole - the Spanish emblem hoisted in Act 1 is unceremoniously used as a beach towel by a lotion-slapping leggy blonde gleefully awaiting the toreador’s exploits in Act 3 - and a telephone kiosk. Carmen emerges from the latter to sing her Habanera, as if it’s her phone-sex showpiece. A dusty circle suggests bullring or barricade, as you like; there’s no freedom whether you in or out. Lillas Pastia’s bar is a second-hand car lot: these brigands keep on the move, though the battered Mercedes need a helping nudge to get rolling. Those in the ENO audience who thought that they were in for an evening of the eye-watering hues and exotic scents of Spain must have been disappointed.

Reviewing the first appearance of this production at ENO, in 2012, I noted that ‘life here is perilous and desperate, and self-serving ruthlessness offers the only hope of survival’ but that this ‘potentially intriguing and insightful concept’ was weakened because ‘such deadening violence is by nature static rather than dynamic, and the problem with this at times startlingly discerning and imaginative production is that as it progresses it needs a shot of dramatic drive’. The problems seemed different this time round but had the same effect.

The bourgeoisie at the Opéra-Comique in 1875 might have been both horrified and titillated in equal and complementary measure by the issues of race, class and gender which Carmen shoved under their noses, but sadly the exploitation and subjugation of women - violence, prostitution, destructive defiance - seem all too familiar now. This production was first mounted at the 1999 Peralada Festival in northern Catalonia, and then adapted for the Gran Teatre del Liceu in 2010. At twenty years-of-age, it’s starting to feel a bit weary.

Bieito’s images are striking, often unpleasant and sometimes discomforting, but the violence seemed rather abstract on this occasion - dislocated from a real community, real people and genuine relationships. The ENO Chorus sang well, but the vulgar masculinity seemed rather cartoonish. Though Alex Otterburn was a terrific Moralès, really dark and disturbed, Keel Watson’s Zuniga scarcely registered in dramatic terms. Most problematic of all was the fact that there was absolutely no chemistry between the central pair of tragic lovers.

Sean Panikkar, Nardus Williams.jpg Sean Panikkar (José), Nardus Williams (Micaëla). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Justina Gringytė, returning confidently to the title role that she performed at ENO in 2015, had plenty of grit and edge, though not much sultriness - at times she sounded as if should be singing Janáček not Bizet, and the Eastern European twang to the English text did not so much suggest ‘an outsider’ as make it impossible to forgo reliance on the surtitles (mercifully the spoken dialogue has been massacred by Bieito to the point of non-existence). There was nothing that was not secure and technically assured about Gringytė’s performance, but it was a ‘motive-less’ as the set was ‘Spanish-less’.

American tenor Sean Panikkar impressed in terms of ardour, colour and warmth, but he did not convey the almost hallucinatory madness that overcomes Don José under the heat of the Spanish sun and in the glare of Carmen’s tempting sexual allure. I wasn’t quite sure why he killed her at the close. Nor, was I convinced that this José had any genuine feelings for Nardus Williams’ Micaëla (or for his own mother, for that matter, whose absence and demise he frequently laments). Williams is asked to forgo any semblance of innocent ingénue and she did this by singing with power, a rich tone enhance by a full vibrato, and grabbing José in a passionate lip-locked embrace. Williams got the biggest applause of the night for ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ but how do we square this with the bitchy vulgarity she exhibits when she spits on the spread-eagled Carmen when she manages to get José to leave with her at the end of Act three to visit his dying mother?

Ashley Riches (Escamillo).jpg Ashley Riches (Escamillo). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Ashley Riches struggled to make Escamillo ‘exciting’ - as any ‘torreador’ might, when dressed in a grey suit and deprived of one’s bullring - but he sang with characteristic vigour and precision. If I suggest that Ellie Laugharne (Frasquita) and Samantha Price (Mercédès) were a frightful double act, that’s a positive comment in the context of this production: in fact, the card scene was one of the most persuasive and ‘human’ episodes in the performance.

This is a ‘noisy’ production. The smugglers stamp and stomp, car doors slam, a naked soldier performs the torero’s night-before-the-fight ritual, slapping his abs with quasi-lycanthropic lust under the glow of the moon beam. It can all be rather distracting, especially since conductor Valentina Peleggi didn’t inspire the ENO Orchestra to coloristic heights: it felt rather muted in the pit, though some fine horn and harp playing grabbed one’s attention at times.

Toussaint Meghie’s white-suited, trilby-topped Lillas Pastia got the show underway with a sleight of hand involving a red kerchief à la matador, but it will take more than a box of tricks to make this Carmen come fully alive. Perhaps as the run unfolds the cast will get into the groove and bring some magic - black or otherwise - to Bieito’s twilight zone.

Claire Seymour

Carmen - Justina Gringytė, Don José - Sean Panikkar, Escamillo - Ashley Riches, Micaëla - Nardus Williams, Zuniga - Keel Watson, Moralès - Alex Otterburn, Frasquita - Ellie Laugharne, Mercédès - Samantha Price, Dancairo - Matthew Durkan, Remendado - John Findon; Director - Calixto Bieito, Conductor - Valentina Peleggi, Revival director - Jamie Manton, Set designer - Alfons Flores, Costume designer - Mercè Paloma, Lighting designer - Bruno Poet, Revival lighting designer - Martin Doone.

English National Opera, London Coliseum; Wednesday 29th January 2020.