There are underpants aplenty in ENO’s ‘new’ (actually 13 year old) Carmen, but, contrary to reputation, director Calixto Bieito seems unwilling to drop them. When it gets down to the real meat and potatoes, only one todger is served up. To the orchestral opening of the third act, a wafty, homoerotic dance solo suggests the soldier in question can only be at peace in his fantasies. Well, if you've got to stick a willy in Carmen, I suppose that's not a bad place to do it.
It’s a rare moment of tenderness for a production that's more interested in the hope-stifling brutality of its environment than escapist passion or sensuality (regardless of what ENO's artistic director thinks he's bought). Don José’s military mates are a thuggish bunch, in thrall to the sadistic Moralès, who gets his kicks making one of them race round the parade ground in his underpants until he drops dead.
The soldiers leer and paw at the gypsy girls, treating them as no better than the whores some of them have become. There are no big fat gypsy caravans for this lot – they live, sleep and ply their business from a park full of battered Mercedes. A little gypsy girl dances alone with her dolly at the start of Act 2 (a neat counterpoint to the later naked soldier moment). But soon she too is forced on to a soldier’s lecherous lap - just, it is implied, as Carmen must have been all those years ago.
A drunk in a stained white suit is revealed as Lillas Pastia. Emblematic of the decayed past and class that the Bieito’s tawdry 70s scenario has replaced, he crops up in every act. He prepares the denouement by sketching a broad white circle on the sandy ground - bullring or enclosure? The protagonists’ fates have been sealed by their histories.
The usual thigh-rubbing cliches have disappeared from the music as well as the visuals. Ryan Wigglesworth’s conducting was fleet, elegant and action-led. Ruxandra Donose was a perfect Carmen for this concept, a hard-headed survivor without manufactured sensuality. Elizabeth Llewellyn distinguished herself as an unusually scheming Micaela, despite an element of miscasting. Amelia in next year’s ETO Simon Boccanegra should prove a much better fit for her big, dark Harteros-like voice.
Adam Diegel’s Don José and Leigh Melrose’s Escamillo paled beside these tough women, but both acquitted themselves decently enough. Credit to Bieito and the singers concerned for fleshing out some of the supporting roles more than is usually the case – particularly Duncan Rock’s chest-baring, trouser-dropping Moralès, Graeme Danby’s rough-hewn Zuniga and Madeleine Shaw’s party-girl Mercedes.
However a tentative quality to most performances never quite disappeared – first night nerves, or just not enough rehearsal? Regardless, like Bieito's recent Shakespeare-remix Forests, this is a subtle, intelligent and sometimes poetically beautiful accomplishment, with a hard edge that reminds us Carmen's story is not as old-fashioned as it's usually made to seem.
All photos: ENO
The production trailer: