Rarely does a night at the opera prompt such strong critical responses. The Mail is hailing the production a ‘travesty’ while The Guardian describes it as a ‘fascinating’ examination of ‘insistent male sexuality’. Yet, opening night at director Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen at the English National Opera, was, for me, curiously lacking in passion and conviction.
This is Carmen transported to the last days of Franco’s Spain – an idea that could have worked well in both the military and gypsy camp settings. Unfortunately however, there was more chemistry between Carmen (Ruxandro Donose) and the flagpole she was tied to or the cars she posed over than with her leading man José (Adam Diegel). His murderous passion in the final act was not only unbelievable but bordering on the ludicrous – what just about worked when sung was painful in the dialogue sections. It was this failure of the central romance, rather than the emphasis on sleaze which has horrified some critics, which reduced the tragic plot to the level of tawdry soap opera.
An exception was Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Micaëla – a favourite with the crowd on the night. Her strong vocal performance was matched by a real dignity in her performance, even when mauled at by lustful soldiers, or hiding in the rear seats of a car, and she enjoyed an emotional repartee with the audience which was entirely lacking with the main characters. Some of the crowd scenes were also impressive, indicating what a strong production this could have been. Colourful costuming and energetic choreography combined perfectly with the Chorus of Citizens at the beginning of Act IV to suggest the excitement of the bullfight, and the interaction between Carmen and the soldiers during the Habanera aria showed the leading lady at her best.
I wasn’t horrified by the full frontal male nudity, or the suggestion of child prostitution, or entirely opposed to the idea of seeing Carmen in a phone box. I really wanted to love it. But this production, despite the beautiful music conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, just falls a little flat, although it will probably do well from its dalliance with controversy.