Georges Bizet, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a by Prosper Mérimée, English translation by Christopher Cowell
English National Opera
London Coliseum

Clare Presland, Justina Gringyte and Rhian Lois Credit: Alastair Muir
The Company Credit: Alastair Muir
Justina Gringyte and Eric Cutler Credit: Alastair Muir

Calixto Bieito's Carmen was never going to be dull. The Catalan director has a reputation for fireworks, especially taking big risks with the classics. This production, while remaining respectful to the underlying spirit of the original, is inventive and, as a result, always grips theatrically as well as musically.

The setting sung in English with surtitles has been coherently updated to the mid-1970s, while the location remains the same, placing the players in a tawdry tale of love and lust in Spain under Franco's repressive martial regime.

Here, unwilling enlisted soldiers roam the streets, causing chaos with their muscular shows of strength and threatening any decent girls who pass by. These are represented by Eleanor Dennis's Micaëla, sung with the purest of sad sopranos.

The country girl has come to town to see Eric Cutler as Don José, the Corporal who fails to respond to her devotion in kind.

Instead, like almost every man on stage (and one would wager a good proportion of those in the auditorium), he is in thrall to International Opera Awards’ Young Singer of the Year, Lithuanian mezzo-soprano Justina Gringyte in the title role.

This Carmen (both the production and the lady) is sexy beyond belief. The consequence is that toreador Escamillo played and sung by Leigh Melrose, the lieutenant and several smugglers vie with the hunky, mountainous Don José for the bleach-blonde gypsy, who defends herself with a powerful mezzo and strong spirit.

The main action commences outside the cigarette factory in which bold women work in profusion, much to the excitement of the local garrison.

It moves to the borders where the local vagabond smugglers all seem to drive battered Mercedes (six on stage at one time) and plan daring deeds to get rich, while having a whale of a time and enjoying wine, (loose) women and song.

The finale to top off 2¾ thrilling and melodious hours brings the tragedy to a close both in and around the bull-ring, where Escamillo rains and a large, loud crowd including an enthusiastic children’s chorus witnesses symbolic acts of death.

These not only make their own statement about Spain as Franco's long reign came to an end but also provide metaphors for the devil-may-care characters who people the drama, not to forget a small handful who care far too much.

Sir Richard Armstrong's orchestra provides top quality support to a well-balanced cast led by Justina Gringyte, who seems to be the next superstar diva in waiting, in a highly enjoyable and extremely accessible version of an operatic favourite.

Anyone who cannot get along to the Coliseum during the run will have the opportunity to enjoy the performance through ENO Screen’s live broadcast at cinemas across UK and Eire plus some worldwide on 1 July.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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