Five stars for the voices
Three stars for the staging and direction
I have always enjoyed going to ENO productions; they are often modern versions of well-known operas and can be both challenging and rewarding to experience. We decided to take a bunch of my daughter’s 17-year-old A level music/drama friends to this production, which was first staged at the Coliseum in 2012. It’s a very different take on a familiar story and we certainly had a lively discussion about the production all the way home on the train!
The voices, especially Carmen the gypsy’s (mezzo-soprano Justina Gringyté), and Don José the corporal’s (tenor Sean Panikkar), are stunning, and the music gloriously familiar. But it’s a new translation and the action has been moved to a rather unpleasant military border town in Franco’s time, possibly in Spain, possibly a Spanish colonial outpost, in the 1970s. It’s a really minimalist set, using the whole enormous Coliseum stage with a massive cast, and although the staging is effective, I did miss having more warmth, colour and dancing on stage.
There’s a lot in the programme about the meaning of everything but I’m still perplexed by the Christmas tree in what should be the bar scene but isn’t… There is copious and menacing male aggression, violence, and some quite tawdry sexual behaviour so be warned if taking younger teens. There were a lot of (very well-behaved) school groups in, but all secondary age. We had tickets in the balcony; I booked early and got the front row where you can easily see under the bar if you’re short. Tickets are good value up there and sight lines pretty decent, but the seats are padded bench seats and legroom is tight.
There’s a random naked man on stage at dawn at the beginning of the gypsy encampment scene – my daughter said it’s an exact copy of a scene in Die Hard 2. I thought initially perhaps he was stripping off to go for a swim, but possibly he was just having a lovely time slapping his thighs and being at one with nature. Who knows? And why when you know your actress playing Carmen is a beautiful Lithuanian blonde would you put a South American-looking brunette on the front of the programme? It’s just confusing for the audience, especially if they’ve never seen this opera before. And, as it’s probably the most accessible opera of all, why make it potentially more difficult to work out what’s going on?
Having said that I absolutely love ENO and its policy of showing a broad range of old and new operas and opening up opera to wider and younger audiences. Everything is sung in English, there are surtitles on the proscenium arch, and the voices (and orchestra) fill the auditorium naturally without the need for head mikes. There’s a lot to enjoy if you are planning on going to this production; be prepared for something just a bit different!