Damiano Michieletto’s new Covent Garden Carmen is well sung but disappoints and disturbs

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Antonello Manacorda (conductor). Broadcast live (directed by Pati Marr) from the Royal Ballet & Opera, Covent Garden, to Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 1.5.2024. (JPr)

Ruth Alfie Adams (Don José’s mother) and Piotr Beczała (Don José) © Camilla Greenwell

What a disappointment this was from a director who introduced himself early in 2015 with a deeply controversial (and unrevivable?) Guillaume Tell and then later that year staged an astonishing Cav and Pag. Fast-forward to 2024 and he has created a Carmen with little to say that hasn’t been said before to replace Barrie Kosky’s short-lived 2015 Frankfurt version that proves not all Kosky does is operatic gold. Michieletto now rehashes ideas from previous – and better – Carmen productions (possibly Sir Richard Eyre’s 2009 Metropolitan Opera one and certainly that by Calixto Bieito, which dates from 1999 but was first seen in the UK at English National Opera in 2012) with their elements of updating the story to the twentieth century. For this coproduction with Madrid’s Teatro Real and Milan’s La Scala, Michieletto has the same collaborators as for Cav and Pag so there is the same use of the revolve again with an outside space (where most of this Carmen happens) and again a prominent building; here functioning – over four acts – as the ‘POLICIA LOCAL’, a rather poky nightclub (brothel?), a corrugated shed for all the black market cigarettes and booze being smuggled, and a changing room where Escamillo gets fitted with his traje de luces by a European version of John Inman’s character from TV’s Are You Being Served?

Elle Osili-Wood introducing the broadcast in her usual cheerful way told us the director imagines what we see as ‘a rural and remote space, all wide horizons, heat, dust and inescapable sunlight’. Director of The Royal Opera, Oliver Mears, added how Michieletto was after ‘the sense of intense heat, which would generate so much the passion and the intensity people expect from this opera [and] he wanted a really naturalistic acting style from the performers’. Well, that might have been possible with a bigger budget but, for me, he certainly fails on the heat issue. Several townspeople fanning themselves for part of the first act was all that suggested it was hot and the remaining three acts were in the evening when it was rather dark! Mears went on to suggest that it is ‘not a traditional production’ but, in fact, it is a traditional one for 2024!

I had no idea where we are supposed to be in Spain – and even Michieletto himself couldn’t explain where – nor when, as it is certainly not this century and Carla Teti’s costumes have been sourced, by the look of it, from a retro clothing store. Act I has more townspeople than soldiers (as here, policemen), there are cigarette girls and little or no ‘smoking’ and worst of all a gaggle of overenthusiastic children (members of the Youth Opera Company) seemingly trying to turn an opera – ending with the brutal murder of a woman – into something ‘family-friendly’. Their usual mock-marching in Act I is turned into some cowboy/cowgirl fun and games and the bullying of three younger children, and they turn up between acts to hold up letters which collectively spell out the passage of time in French. It made me wonder if Michieletto (and his dramaturg) had actually read the Carmen libretto because Act III was introduced as ‘The following night’ as surely more time has passed than that? By the time the excitement of the children reached its peak in Act IV I was so tired of their antics.

For an opéra comique – supposedly singing and dialogue – Michieletto cut most of the dialogue and upped the comique. He also didn’t seem to know what to do with the chorus who often only appear when they need to sing (though they do that spiritedly), and his big idea is to have Don José’s mother, an elderly figure in a black dress and veil (Ruth Alfie Adams), onstage virtually every time Bizet’s ‘fate’ motif is heard. She has a deck of tarot cards and holds up the Death card at the beginning and will ‘deal’ it out to others during the opera.

Elsewhere – I repeat – everything was fairly ‘traditional’ in what we saw, and I did not particularly notice anything unusually ‘naturalistic’ about the acting, with the motivation of the characters appearing to be what they always are in Carmen. José is often the doe-eyed and lovesick corporal and Carmen is always aware of her physical allure, desires and fickleness. However, even now when she has set her sights on Escamillo in Act III she is reluctant to let José go. Interestingly – since we are not sure where we are in Spain – was it deliberate that José was seduced by Carmen stripping down to her basque (!) and at that point she had her legs wrapped round him more often than not. One of Michieletto’s better ideas is the ransoming of the captured Zuniga, Jose’s commanding officer, though I cannot condone the sadistic way Carmen meets her end at José’s hands in the full glare of 100 spotlights and in almost total ignorance of the #MeToo movement’s campaign against violence to women.

Blaise Malaba (Zuniga), Aigul Akhmetshina (Carmen) and Grisha Martirosyan (Moralès) © Camilla Greenwell

There has been much attention given to Aigul Akhmetshina returning ‘home’ – to the house where she was on the Jette Parker Young Artists programme – to sing Carmen again. Akhmetshina has been making a name for herself in the role recently and was now back at Covent Garden where she first sang it when she was only 21 and this very evening was her 28th birthday. She has just sung Carmen at New York’s Metropolitan Opera (also with Piotr Beczała as Don José) and will sing it soon at Glyndebourne. Akhmetshina’s mezzo-soprano voice is undoubtedly expressive, as well as dark, sultry and sensuous, ideal for Carmen of course. Perhaps I need to see her again, perhaps it was what Michieletto wanted, but Akhmetshina looked uncomfortable displaying Carmen’s overt sexuality; though we saw from her most of Carmen’s rebelliousness, capriciousness, passion and fatalism right through to her death at the hands of a rejected and desperate lover. Akhmetshina performed as you might expect a 28-year-old young singer would, though Carmen has been much better portrayed by many other singers in the past; Elīna Garanča to name just one.

I always enjoy seeing and hearing Piotr Beczała, even if I didn’t think his voice sounded as fresh as I’ve heard it in the past, nevertheless his Flower Song was the highlight you would expect of his early acts. He too looked uneasy as a naïve, easily led astray soldier, though Beczała came into his own displaying José’s Otello-like jealously in the final act, suggesting he must surely add that Verdi role to his repertoire soon. Olga Kulchynska brought some exquisite phrasing and a purity of tone to Micaëla, the plain, homely girl from Don José’s village, whose love for him never stands a chance once Carmen sets her sights on him. Kostas Smoriginas was Don José’s rival Escamillo – looking more like a drug dealer than bullfighter in Act II – and he had none of braggadocio the role demands and even less of its essential charisma. Here his attraction to Carmen could only be the status she would achieve by being associated with the popular toreador.

The supporting cast was exceptionally strong; bass Blaise Malaba (alumnus of the Jette Parker programme) was an arrogant Zuniga and current Jette Parker Young Artists Sarah Dufresne and Gabrielė Kupšytė were remarkably assured and engaging as Frasquita and Mercédès. Two French singers in the United Nations cast, Vincent Ordonneau and Pierre Doyen, relished their roles as Remendado and Dancaïre, the leaders of the smugglers and probably the girls’ pimps. The well sung quintet in Act II was another musical highlight of this Carmen.

Alongside this fine singing, Antonello Manacorda’s conducting of the splendid Royal Opera House orchestra played a full part in bringing a modicum of success to this otherwise disappointing new Carmen. There was a fast tempo right from the start and throughout it sounded – through the cinema’s loudspeakers – as if Manacorda had a confident grasp of all the work’s lyrical and dramatic elements. Everything built to the gripping but disturbing climax as the disastrous endgame of all the sexual desire we had witnessed reaped two victims.

Jim Pritchard

Director – Damiano Michieletto
Set designer – Paolo Fantin
Costume designer – Carla Teti
Lighting designer – Alessandro Carletti
Dramaturg – Elisa Zaninotto
Chorus director – William Spaulding

Moralès – Grisha Martirosyan
Micaëla – Olga Kulchynska
Don José – Piotr Beczała
Zuniga – Blaise Malaba
Carmen – Aigul Akhmetshina
Frasquita – Sarah Dufresne
Mercédès – Gabrielė Kupšytė
Escamillo – Kostas Smoriginas
Dancaïro – Pierre Doyen
Remendado – Vincent Ordonneau
Bohemian – Dawid Kimberg
Marchande d’oranges – Louise Armit

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