ENO’s Carmen a Musical and Dramatic Triumph

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera / Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor), The Coliseum, London, 21.11.2012. (MB)
(sung in English)

Carmen: Ruxandra Donose
Don José: Adam Diegel
Escamillo: Leigh Melrose
Micaëla: Elizabeth Llewellyn
Zuniga: Graeme Danby
Moralès: Duncan Rock
Frasquita: Rhian Loise
Mercédès: Madeleine Shaw
Dancairo: Geoffrey Dolton
Remendado: Alan Rhys-Jenkins
Lillas Pastia: Dean Street
Girl: Anya Truman

Calixto Bieito (director)
Joan Antonio Recchi (assistant director)
Alfons Flores (set designs)
Mercè Paloma (costumes)
Bruno Poet (lighting)

A triumph for ENO! I suspected that Carmen would prove eminently suited to Calixto Bieito’s talents, and so it proved. Shorn of any ‘picturesque’ pandering – remember Francesco Zambello and her donkey? – what we saw here was perfectly attuned to Bizet’s resolutely unsentimental score. Spanish heat is for once no cliché; instead, we feel that heat almost unmediated, its oppression, its sexiness, its glory, its desperation. This is a more unsparing depiction of 1970s Spain than anything one would see in Almodóvar. Life is brutal: Carmen seems much more a product of her society, defiant and yet unable to transcend it, than we tend to imagine. The tawdry car-park world of gypsy trading is not romanticised; it does not necessarily appear better – or for that matter, worse – than that of the army. The figure of the abused girl is all the more disturbing for the lack of exaggeration. Ruthless realism, as in the opera, is the order of the day. We always think of Don José as a mummy’s boy; here his most erotic moment is the lingering, passionate kiss with Micaëla – a far more rounded, credible character than a mere angel of goodness – when she passes on the kiss from his mother.  Escamillo is no deus ex machina; he is cut down to size as twentieth-century ‘heroes’ tend to be. The marking of the bullring in the fourth act circumscribes the boundaries for the action in a fashion more chilling than I have ever experienced. The crowd has turned to us, has made its own entertainment – shaping of bull and toreadors from the men available is a masterstroke – and has disappeared. Now we – or they – are alone. Fate, as foretold in the cards, is played out. Hesitance prolongs the agony, yet the desert bleakness – social, scenic, existential – of the drama is in a sense the true protagonist here. Franco or his successors? Is there that much of a difference, especially under the present regime?

Ryan Wigglesworth conducted as fine an account of the score as I can recall hearing in the theatre, infinitely more subtle than the bandmaster performance of Antonio Pappano at Covent Garden, let alone the perverse manufactured intimacy of Simon Rattle in Salzburg. Rhythms were precise yet never – save, perhaps at the very opening – did the score seem harried. Colour was painted vividly; at times, this might almost have been Ravel. And Wigglesworth knew when to hang back, especially during the opening of the fourth act. There was nothing arbitrary to this; the score was not pulled around. Rather, dramatic tension was screwed up in tandem with the action on stage. Throughout the ENO Orchestra played magnificently, the performance from the chorus – and children’s chorus – equally faultless.

Ruxandra Donose made an excellent Carmen: vulnerable but not too vulnerable, strong, but not too strong, complex, conflicted, and at times devastatingly alluring. Grame Danby and Duncan Rock made great impressions as Zuniga and Moralès respectively; it would be well-nigh impossible to distinguish between the distinction of their vocal and acting performances. Elizabeth Llewellyn was a touching Micaëla, though here at least as much as anywhere else, one regretted the lack of the original French (not that there was anything intrinsically wrong with Christopher Cowell’s valiant translation). Leigh Melrose sang well enough as Escamillo, but his portrayal lacked the requisite virility – even given the concerns of Bieito’s staging. He seemed somewhat miscast. The only real fly in the ointment, however, was Adam Diegel’s Don José. Uncertain of intonation, whether through excess vibrato or simple poor tuning, this was a performance whose stiffness seemed anything but dramatically motivated; stylistically it hovered at its best between Puccini and musical theatre. Such, however, was the power of the ensemble performance that it was difficult to mind too much.

This was the best performance I have seen at ENO for quite some time – and the best performance of Carmen I have ever seen. More Bieito and more Wigglesworth, please!


Mark Berry