Seduced but not in love

The English National Opera's production of Carmen is the most intelligent we've seen for a while.

The cast of the ENO's Carmen.
The cast of the ENO's Carmen. Photograph: Alastair Muir

Carmen
English National Opera, London WC2

When it was announced that the Catalan badboy director Calixto Bieito was finally going to have his wicked way with opera’s ultimate bad-girl, Carmen, an orgy of critical speculation ensued. What would Bieito dare to do, the director who had already exposed audiences to everything from Die Fledermaus and Don Giovanni to scenes of homosexual and gang rape, masturbation, sexual torture and violations of the most extreme kind?

First seen in Europe in 1999 and now at English National Opera for the first time, Bieito’s Carmen duly scandalised everyone – but in a way no one saw coming. It turns out that the most shocking thing this director could do was to exercise restraint and give us a production of this sensual classic informed by sex but never overpowered by it.

While many directors have been sucked into perpetuating the exotic myth of Spain seductively set-out in Bizet’s score, Bieito’s reworking is the disillusioned vision of head rather than heart (or even groin). Set in the final years of Franco’s rule, in the dusty borderlands of Spain, the production invites us into the failing factory of national myth-making. Flamenco outfits are grubby and worn, fit only for duping credulous tourists out of their money; bullfighter are glorified spivs, only a fancy cape and a swagger away from the crooks they associate with, and even the iconic Osborne bull is being dismantled. There are gypsies here, but while they might share their dark eyes with Bizet’s glamorous malcontents, there’s nothing romantic about their illegal trade in women and household appliances.

Though political dictatorship may be on the decline there’s nothing waning about the power of Bieito’s domestic dictators. Army Lieutenant Zuniga (Graeme Danby) and Corporal Morales (Duncan Rock) preside with sadistic glee over their troops, who in turn exercise their power and frustration on any women within reach. Although she might start outside this circle of sexual tyranny, Carmen (Ruxandra Donose) is soon lured from the isolation and scanty protection of a Teléfono kiosk into the combat arena – an interchangeable plaything like any other.

And that’s where the problems start for the ENO. Although she has a husky vocal charisma and a certain presence, Donose never loses herself in the unabashed physicality of Carmen. Bieito’s heroine is a pragmatist, all front-tie blouses and easy-access skirts, and there’s a casualness to her sexuality that is lost behind Donose’s awkwardly determined writhings. Vocally she’s mesmerising, and even the lack of raw power feels like a calculated invitation to sit closer, to lean further in, but that’s no compensation for a habanera in which her command to “beware” carries all the threat of a sexy-kitten costume at Halloween, for a rendition of “Pres des remparts de Seville” as a (flag)pole-dance that’s frankly matronly.

Then there’s the inexplicable tension between Bieito’s victim-vixen heroine and all other aspects of the production. Bizet’s music casts her unequivocally as seductress, delaying our gratification with exquisite control in the flexible rhythmic phrases of her arias, but Bieito would have her as the exploited not the exploiter. The director’s clamouring chorus of beggar children and cheap brightness of his ensemble sell us a Carmen of unvarnished squalor, but Ryan Wigglesworth’s orchestra offers up an elegant landscape, complete with a “Toreador Song” of sleekly patrician understatement. And then there’s Christopher Cowell’s English translation – text so uptight and so, well, English, as to make a mockery of all the local colour the sets hurl at us, even before you factor in Adam Diegel’s (Don José) American and Donose’s Romanian accents. Thankfully spoken dialogue is cut back to a minimum, but what remains stops the drama in its tracks.

There are some strong performances: Rhian Lois and Madeleine Shaw as Frasquita and Mercédès are a full-cream foil to the generous vocal colours of Donose, and Duncan Rock’s Action- Man Morales is almost dangerously charismatic, delivering the most assured vocal performance of the evening. Diegel’s Don José isn’t as yet a comfortable experience, but comes into his own in moments of emotional extremity when his thin tone releases into something meatier and more liberated. I’m not sure how to reconcile Elizabeth Llewellyn’s savvy, grownup Micaela with Bizet’s sheltered innocent, but a near-rape encounter with the soldiers ensures that her tentative attempts at empowerment never get very far.

Love Bieito or hate him, there’s always a truthfulness (however unpalatable) in his treatment of human relationships. Here, it is suddenly and brutally scattered across the stage along with the contents of Carmen’s handbag in her final encounter with Don José . Her efforts to be respectable – the new bag, shoes, lipstick and compact – are exposed for all to see, as she grovels on the ground to pick them up. Demeaned, stripped bare, you get the feeling that José’s petty gesture hurts her far more than the knife with which he finally kills her.

Bieito’s is a tragedy that refuses the dignity of the genre, that risks the grubby unpleasantness of the banal where many would prefer horror. It’s the most intelligent Carmen we’ve seen for a long time, a worthy riposte to the travesty that is Francesca Zambello’s for the Royal Opera House. But it’s also – despite over a decade of revisions – still a work under construction, and the rotten timber of ENO’s libretto and ill-fitting orchestral scaffolding haven’t helped advance it.