Opera: Bizet’s Carmen, English National Opera, 28/05/15

by James M. Potter

Justina Gringyte leads a dramatic and lively staging of Bizet’s tune-fest

Playing Carmen in a modern production has to be one of opera’s harder gigs. You must not only be an agile mezzo, equal to Bizet’s seductive and twisty writing, but also convincingly irresistible to pretty much everyone, from Don José, as well as his fellow soldiers and commanding officer, to passing bullfighters. In addition, expect to be doing this whilst being groped lecherously by all and sundry.

So it’s to ENO’s credit that they secured the services of Justina Gringyte in the role of the tragic heroine in this revival of Calixto Bieito’s production. The Lithuanian mezzo managed to fulfil all of the above criteria and project them right to the back of the balcony, whether tied to a flagpole or perched on top of a car.

What’s this, I hear you cry, isn’t Calixto Bieito the one with the gratuitous nudity and orgiastic violence? Well, yes, he is, but this is an uncharacteristically PG-13 production. In fact there’s only one gratuitously nude moment, at the beginning of Act III, where a naked soldier performs a sort of parodic bull-fighting dance for a couple of minutes – the meaning of which we puzzled over later on in the Chandos to little avail. Bieito’s Carmen is a fairly straightforward interpretation with some flourishes here and there. It tries to make a couple of points about masculinity and femininity, but mostly it’s colourful and appropriately tawdry. The opening courtyard scene does a good job convincing us that this is a hot country where passions frequently run high and out of control, and the ever-present imagery of the bull is a nice touch, speaking to Don José’s growing mania and jealousy of the toreador, Escamillo.

It’s strange to think that the initial run of Carmen in 1874 attracted accusations of ‘Wagner-ism’. Today, Bizet’s tune-fest couldn’t seem more different to a lengthy Wagner opera; it really is one hummable melody after another, boisterously orchestrated and seldom flagging in energy, all characteristics that came through in Richard Armstrong’s conducting.

American tenor Eric Cutler tore into Don José with a great deal of energy. At his best in the the final scenes of anger and despair, he also modulated to an emotional and pathetic flower aria in Act II. Escamillo, on the other hand, is a broad-stroke character, and was despatched with occasionally overplayed swagger by Leigh Melrose. And, having last heard her a few years ago in the Royal College of Music Opera School’s Rodelinda, it was lovely to hear Eleanor Dennis again, singing Micaëla assuredly. There was great support from the minor roles and the chorus, and even up in the gods we got nearly all the words.

Carmen is one of those works that frequently tops polls of perfect ‘first operas’ to go and see, and ENO’s production is certainly not a bad place to start. After all, drama, tunes, and classy singing are always going to be a recipe for success.