A Thoughtful, Provocative Carmen from Calixto Bieito

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick) / Sir Richard Armstrong (conductor). The Coliseum, London, 20.5.2015 (MB)

(sung in English)

Carmen – Justina Gringyte
Don José – Eric Cutler
Escamillo – Leigh Melrose
Micaëla – Eleanor Dennis
Zuniga – Graeme Danby
Moralès – George Humphreys
Frasquita – Rhian Lois
Mercédès – Claire Presland
Dancairo – Geoffrey Dolton
Remendado – Alan Rhys-Jenkins
Lillas Pastia – Toussaint Meghie
Girl – Sophia Elton


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


When I saw this production open in 2012, I opened by writing, ‘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 is perfectly attuned to Bizet’s resolutely unsentimental score.’ And so it still very much seems, under the able revival direction of Bieito’s then assistant, Joan Anton Rechi. The updating to the tawdry end of the vicious Franco regime continues to resonate; violence is in the air and more than in the air. At any point, it can and will claim its victims, many of whom we see on display here. We too live in a militarised society, although one that remains slightly more bashful about proclaiming itself to be such; we can draw parallels without their in any sense being forced upon us. We certainly know poverty, racism, misogyny, and the other forces we see depicted on stage; we also know, increasingly well, child abuse – and the figure of the small girl, both loved and abandoned by her mother, looks to an uncertain future most likely to be cyclical, or worse.

But above all, Bieito’s mastery of his craft as director and storyteller comes through. Characters who can sometimes seem romanticised, caricatured, even one-dimensional are more complex than we generally see. Carmen stands out less than is often the case; her vulnerability is as much social as personal, and all the more credible for that placing. Likewise Micaëla’s greater capacity for agency, her deviousness – no mere ‘angel’ on this occasion – make her a far more interesting character. Has she even invented the story about Don José’s mother? She certainly expresses triumph upon prizing him away from Carmen, harking back to the first scene in which she cannot prevent herself from kissing him – and clearly feels no shame in having done so. ‘Franco or his successors?’ I asked last time. ‘Is there that much of a difference, especially under the present regime?’ We may make substitutions across history, across the world, whilst at the same time remaining plausible specificity, indeed ruthless realism.

Ryan Wigglesworth conducted an excellent account last time; I am not sure that Sir Richard Armstrong was not finer still. Each act had its own colour, its own pace, but the ineluctable calling of Fate drove, in the best sense, the action forward. The ENO Orchestra was on top form, its woodwind solos full of character, fresh and subtle as a fine manzanilla. The strings dazzled in as impressive an orchestral performance as I have heard in the Coliseum all year. Likewise, the chorus, of which the director asks a great deal, was its typical excellent self. These were individuals but they were also a threatening and threatened mass.

Justina Gringyte was somewhat more aloof than Ruxandra Donose, but equally convincing as a character. Hauteur, relatively speaking, worked well here, and she could certainly turn on the charm when required. Her lines were clean, and her slightly accented English equally clear. Don José is a difficult role; in the beginning, Eric Cutler seemed a little too generalised, too lacking in charisma. However, he seemed, especially in the context of a strong company, to grow into the role. Leigh Melrose’s reprise of Escamillo offered an uncommonly subtle reading, in which the relationship between vulnerability and machismo – ever a ‘Spanish’ theme, even for a Frenchman such as Bizet – was intriguingly explored. Eleanor Dennis’s revisionist Micäela did not lack for sweetness of tone, especially during her third-act aria. Rhian Lois and Clare Presland offered vividly characterised readings of Frasquita and Mercédès. Special mention should be offered to Sophia Elton as that frightened, yet strong, little girl.

Those who have yet to see Bieito’s Carmen should hasten to the Coliseum; those who have done so before will need no encouragement from me. Let us hope, as I concluded in 2012, for more Bieito from ENO – and, indeed, for the Royal Opera to enlist his services too. The former enfant terrible is now widely recognised as one of the most thoughtful, provocative opera directors at work today; we need to see more of him in London. More from Armstrong would be no bad thing too.

Mark Berry

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