In a bare, sandy arena shrouded in dirt and dust, the battle of the sexes assumes a distinctly unpleasant tint as masculine bravura and matey-ness reveal their nastier side: all men are aggressive and sadistic, all women shallow and sexualised, collusive in their subjugation. In an indeterminate 1970s location - which, in an explanatory programme article, Maria M. Delgado terms a ‘border space’ - the only splashes of colour are a dirty Spanish flag (degradingly serving in Act 4 as a beach towel for a sun-seeking bather) and Micäela’s rather ugly hippy shirt: life here is perilous and desperate, and self-serving ruthlessness offers the only hope of survival.
It is a potentially intriguing and insightful concept: but, 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 - rather like the battered Mercedes saloons of Act 3 that require a helpful shove from the band of itinerant migrants to get them rolling into position.
This lack of motion is, paradoxically, intrinsic to what is perhaps Bieito’s most powerful visual symbol - namely, the circular rings which serve as bull-ring, beach and bad-land, and which baldly announce the fatal confinement which Carmen can never evade. When, in Act 4, Lillas Pastia - an Arab marked as an outsider by his trashy bling and white suit - inscribes a white circle on the bare stage, we know unequivocally that the noose is pulling ever tighter around Carmen’s neck. The final image is the most shocking and most revealing: like a bloody carcass, the dead Carmen is dragged across the circle by a remorseless, deadened José - her animalistic intensity irrevocably and pitilessly quenched - as snatches of the toreador’s victory salute announce the latter’s destructive conquest in the bull-ring.
Elsewhere, the circle proves a less effective device, as in the first scene where a rifle-bearing soldier, clad only in boots and underpants, runs repetitively around the stage, his public punishment enforced until his is felled by fatigue. An obvious sign of repressive cruelty: but also a visual distraction, just when we are trying to get our bearings. Do we follow his futile rotations, and miss something of import in the opening moments? Or do we try to ignore him, in which case, why is he there?
Bizet’s Carmen seduces by song and dance. Movement underpins her dangerous power. So, it is unhelpful that here her Habenera is sung initially on the threshold of a telephone box (one of the set designer Alfons Flores’ few props) - is she phoning to taunt a former lover? - and subsequently standing stock still, centre-stage, facing the audience. Arrested and jailed, Carmen uses the slippery lilt of the Seguidilla to entrance and entrap José: the ambiguous modality of Bizet’s music and the physical impulses of the pseudo-gypsy dance prove hypnotically irresistible. But, this Carmen is tied, hands behind back, to a phallic flagpole, and the only gyrations she can venture are some tentative knee-bends - Peter Stringfellow would not be impressed. Similarly, in Act 2, when José arrives at Lillas Pastia’s ‘tavern’ - here a shabby Mercedes love-mobile - Carmen declares that she will dance for his honour and reward: the rhythmic impulse of her song is strongly physical, something which is hard to convey if you are hanging from an open car door.
This lack of motion is most problematic in Act 3: the stage is over-populated by sundry automobiles (admittedly the back seat of one provides a neat hiding place for Micäela) and a crowd of crooks and prostitutes, and there is simply no space for the principals to move. Restricted to the forestage and denied the freedom of corporeal expression, this Carmen is physically impotent, irrevocably diminished.
Bieito is keen to reverse our assumptions and stereotypes. Teasing us in the opening scene with an alluring brunette who, suggestively drawing on her cigarette, wanders nonchalantly through the salivating soldiers, he then presents us with a blonde Carmen dressed in a pencil skirt. In the title role, Ruxandra Donose sings with unfailing warmth; she is precise and technically assured. However, the part seems to lie a little too low for Donose and the necessary earthy, raunchy lustre is lacking. It does not help that her José, Adam Diegel, is a rigid stage partner. After a stiff start, the tightness and unyieldingness in Diegel’s voice did relax somewhat, and he injected genuine feeling and colour into the Act 2 Duet. Yet, there was a tendency for climactic phrases in the upper register to fade shapelessly. Despite his muscular, brawny physique, Diegel’s stilting stage presence severely diminished the emotional tension between the fated couple.
Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Micäela is certainly an outsider, her sparkling blouse and livid blue eye shadow a slightly disconcerting outburst of brightness in this otherwise drab milieu. This Micäela is no innocent; in Act 1, she professes to bring a greeting from José’s mother, but bourgeois sentiment is manifestly and unashamedly discarded when, rather than offering a demure peck on the cheek, she grabs her José in a passionate embrace. José’s subsequent words, “I see the face of my mother”, triggered an unfortunate snigger. Indeed, throughout the ‘prim and proper’ translation is strangely incompatible with the blatant nastiness of Bieito’s conception.
Llewellyn deservedly won the warmest ovation of the evening; her Act 3 aria was potent with passion and commitment. But, although there is not a phrase that is not perfectly shaped, a sound that is not infinitely agreeable, Llewellyn fails to convince dramatically, her feistiness at odds with the pure integrity of her music.
As Mercédès and Frasquita respectively, Madeleine Shaw and Rhian Lois were a formidable double act. But, giving Mercédès a pretty daughter who, luridly and inappropriately attired, is encouraged to join her elders in ‘entertaining the officers’ may further the theme of underage sexual abuse, but seems a questionable motif.
Graeme Danby is strong as a violent, thuggish Zuniga; and Duncan Rock made a fine Corporal Moralès. But, Leigh Melrose’s Escamillo was more self-satisfied local bigwig than adulated hero; he did not have the vocal or dramatic presence required.
The ENO chorus were committed and vibrant, but the lack of subtlety was a little wearing. From the men, there’s just too much groping and grunting: the women’s chorus in Act 1, as they unwind in nicotine-induced relaxation after a hard day in the factory, is disagreeably disrupted by the soldiers’ testosterone-fuelled antics, and it’s no surprise that Act 2 closes with a woman being brutally strung up on the flagstaff, her shrieking on the stake presumably a prelude to gang rape.
During the Entr’acte preceding Act 3 Bieito tries to suggest that underneath the foul vulgarity a compassionate sensitivity lingers: a naked male soldier sways gracefully, his modesty preserved by the enveloping mist, but his elegant intrusion in an otherwise graceless milieu seems merely an opportunity for some gratuitous nudity. Too often the chorus are physically static: the streetwise migrant children do not leap and play, but rather thrust their begging bowls accusingly at the audience; the restless crowd, eager for the pitting of man against bull, press impatiently against a rope which stretches the length of the stage.
Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth coaxed much refinement from his players, the woodwind and horns in particular conversing with the voices with beautiful clarity and a pleasing lack of bombast. Tempo-wise Wigglesworth doesn’t quite get it right though; after a breakneck first six bars, which left his players trailing in his wake, he put on the brakes resulting in a safe but somewhat unscintillating overture. Elsewhere the ensemble between pit and stage was less than satisfactory, although this may improve during the run. In general, the orchestral rhythms need a bit more bite and boldness.
There is much in this production to provoke reflection, and to encourage fresh evaluation of this well-known opera. Bruno Poet’s lighting creates startling, incisive effects.
There are many deft details, as when Carmen defiantly daubs a lipstick heart on a soldier’s breast, or when José slips on Carmen’s shoes as if she is a Barbie doll to be fashioned as he pleases. Likewise, the towering presentation and subsequent defilement and dismantling of the familiar Osborne bull emblem, which once littered the Spanish rural landscape, is a powerful visual gesture, suggesting the inevitable demise of this cruel masculine world, as symbolised by the posturing of the bullring. However, ultimately there is a frustrating lack of sexual frisson, or even emotional connection, between the three protagonists: this is no Ai no corrida.