George Bizet
English National Opera
The Coliseum

Ruxandra Donose as Carmen and Adam Diegel as Jose Credit: Alastair Muir
Ruxandra Donose as Carmen and Adam Diegel as Jose Credit: Alastair Muir
Leigh Melrose as Escamillio and Rhian Lois Credit: Alastair Muir

The sizzling heat from Bielto’s Carmen bounces off the stage into the winter-chilled audience. It’s gritty and raunchy but this desolate portrayal is no heartwarming Christmas tale.

Carmen is one of the most successful operas ever written. Bizet’s score is heard all over the globe, the whole opera is littered with catchy tunes and conductor James Wigglesworth brings this heady Spanish score to life.

Director Calixto Bielto keeps the action to its Spanish roots but updates the era to the 1970s. The gypsies are either smuggling goods over the border or attempting to amuse tourists with their tacky flamenco outfits. Everyone is implicated in the corruption, from the seedy officials to the smarmy matador Escamillo.

Designer Alfrons Flores emphasises the desolate nature of the scene, with bleak sets on which the brutality abounds. Focused on circles, act one opens with dusty yellow Seville, a punished soldier running circles until collapsing with exhaustion. A lone Spanish telephone box tells us the country we’re in.

Carmen (Ruxandra Donose) appears in this later, and the men clamber over her glass prison, desperate to touch her. Released from their ranks, the soldiers cavort behind the girls from the cigarette factory, not quite brave enough to touch. Unfortunately this posturing and posing drags out and lacks the grit and commitment of the later action.

You realise just how big the Coliseum’s stage is when six cars are wheeled on for act three underneath the iconic Osborne black bull sign. Bielto commits to cars as a theme for this production, as Pastia’s bar is actually an outdoor rave around a car which then becomes the pivot for Carmen and Jose’s seduction. Carmen uses the open door to perform her striptease. Later, Micaela hides in the car and Jose chases Escamillio over the car bonnets, enraged at his taunts. Escamillio (Leigh Melrose) is suave, clad in a trilby and aviators, and his smooth deep voice certainly adds to his charms.

It’s not just Carmen who’s a raunchy temptress. The whole cast have received Viagra shots and the men are permanently on heat. In Carmen’s world, sex is a commodity, and she picks her men as a way to free herself. Even Mercedes's daughter is lusted after by Lillas Pastia (Dean Street). Pastia is first onstage in act one, and throughout seems like the puppeteer of the action, hovering on the edge as if directing. Yet he is permanently stumbling drunk, seemingly an omen for disaster about to strike.

The singing is excellent. Donose voice is rich and earthy, suiting her overt sexuality. Micaela (Elizabeth Llewellyn) sings with desperation, her aria raw and powerful. Jose’s (Adam Diegel) voice soars to the upper ranges and he pulses with energy, constantly pulsating with lust and jealousy. The chorus oozes energy, and Bielto uses them for maximum effect: a bouncing mass of excitement at a bullfight, or an oppressive force encircling Zuniga as he is beaten.

This is a production intended to shock. Once the cast warms into the concept, there’s a sad world of exploitation and greed onstage and Carmen’s tragic death seems inevitable. With sparse sets and maximum brutality, Bielto paints a bleak picture of Seville, and it makes a superb backdrop to this tragic tale.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis

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