Anyone that follows me on Twitter will know my feelings about Calixto Beito’s production of Carmen too well. It is a triumph of modernism over the flouncy overwrought productions of old and also a fresh, visceral theatrical experience.
Attending in two extra occasions it exposed what can go wrong with live performance though…more of that in a minute.
The production has been very well documented with its European and South American versions moving from opera house to opera house since 1999. It seems many companies want Bieito’s touch in a staple of the operatic repertoire that rarely works so well as a complete experience. Bieito’s transfer of the action to the last few months of Franco’s suppression of Spain is a stroke of genius, taking to heart Bizet’s political ideas in Carmen and amplifying them. Far too many productions get too much stuck in the love triangle to care and unnecessary details to care for much else. Bieito’s concept is a holistic treatment of the work, so much so any minor mishaps can be easily forgiven. The very simple conceit of Carmen singing the start of her famous entrance down the phone to an ex lover is clever as it is an instant atmosphere generator. His Carmen seems more sophisticated and cool headed than most and to a huge benefit in believability.
Ruxandra Donose gave a wonderfully committed and subtle performance never edging on smuttiness but giving an intelligent and forthright person on stage. Her vocal performance may not have been the loudest in the world but sang with the necessary glamour and style. Her darker timbre adding weight and an edge of fatalism. Unfortunately both our Jose and Escamillo were miscast but performed admirably well in context of that.
Adam Diegel surely looked rather butch and easy on the eye when he was taking his shirt off but somehow the middle of his voice was not as strong as his abs. At times he was lacking the spark and seemed fatigued by the softer passages. His chemistry with Donose and Llewellyn was undeniable and the production overall carried him through. He was extremely effective in the chilling finale and added his manly fragility to this beautifully choreographed exchange of passion, pity and defiance.
Leigh Melrose was again gorgeous in costume but somehow lacked the vocal bloom and the on stage arrogance to make his character truly resonate. But that is more the fault again of the casting and not his. In all three performances I watched he was clearly giving all he had, it just seemed to be short of what Bizet and Bieito demanded.
But what can I say about Elizabeth Llewellyn that hasn’t been said many times before? She was getting better and better through the run, her much more assertive than usual Michaela seemed a tiny bit tentative at dress rehearsal but had bloomed into a ballsy, strong-minded woman by the second performance that concentrated the glances of the whole auditorium on her. Her appearance in the training camp setting of Act One added a dose of female sexuality in Bieito’s intensely manly world. Many a singer could have been swallowed by the garish sequinned blouse but Llewellyn made it vibrate with personality and her velvety tone offered depth and purpose to every appearance.
The direction allowed her to steal the limelight in crucial junctures in the story telling, such as in Act Three where she is left alone on stage, bar for a battered old Mercedes car and a crucifix she carries with her. And yet her charisma lit up the stage with pathos and gorgeousness. Just think how many forgettable Michaelas you have listened and watched in the past, this was not one of them. Her bras d’honneur at the floor bound Carmen at the end of Act Three was a great touch that made everyone in the audience chuckle (at dress rehearsal the students at the Upper Circle made their allegiance with Michaela all too clear) and instantly side with the good girl of the story.
From the smaller supporting roles, Duncan Rock’s narcissistic Morales was a great addition to Act One that provided a focus and some strong singing. The glorious card scene in Act Three was lit up by the Frasquita of Rhian Lois and the Mercedes of Madeleine Shaw, giving an over the top performance with a rather tart edge that made a great counterfoil to Donose’s much darker, more composed character.
The chorus were tremendous once more, investing their performance all three times with vibrancy and the boorishness that Bieito demanded in Act Four where they jumped and screamed like a real audience to a bull fight, facing the audience and only separated with a tensed rope from the orchestra pit. And then dramatically parting to reveal Escamillo in his bright yellow toreador outfit. Especially when one puts into account they were alternating their Carmen performances with the chorus heavy The Pilgrim’s Progress it is even more impressive how they managed to retain the level of vibrancy required by the direction.
The orchestra was a sad shadow of its usual self on the 27 November performance when Martin Fitzpatrick was conducting. And it seems it was not even his fault, as on the night there were a large number of substitutions in the pit, making the sound sounding unbalanced and at times too predictable.
On the other hand the other two performances under Ryan Wigglesworth were wonderfully paced readings of the score with an innate sense of structure and avoiding the clichés that most conductors seems to impose on this overall lyrical and gripping score. He did not force the dynamics and over-emphasise the “ethnographic” content but instead opted for a singer friendly pace that allowed the story to be engaging and at the same time allowing some much needed pauses. Proving ENO’s investment in him truly worthwhile (he is the composer in residence) and a vindication of this young and fast rising talent that he will make his conducting début with the Royal Opera, replacing Antonio Pappano at Covent Garden by conducting the upcoming revival of Birtwistle’s Minotaur.
I could spend another 1000 words describing this truly wonderful staging by Bieito but what you can do is go and get the DVD/Blu Ray and see for yourselves. It is a production that deserves the cult status it has acquired over the years and hope that it will be revived by ENO very soon. At least I’ll allow myself the mention of how great the lighting design was by Bruno Poet, being both naturalistic and reactive to the on stage action.
As for all the people I know that were put off by the fact it was staged in an English translation at the Coliseum. They sadly missed a great production with two extraordinary ladies on stage and a wonderful orchestra and chorus. Looking forward to the day that superiority complex of the usual Covent Garden offenders will allow them to go to ENO and enjoy it for what it is…London’s second and mainly much edgier opera house.
Production shots by ENO
Edward Seckerson interviewing Calixto Bieito.
Christopher Cook was in conversation with Ryan Wigglesworth.
Curtain call video