Sunday, 30 September 2007

Carmen - ENO at London Coliseum

Carmen by Georges Bizet,
Libretto by Meilhac and Halévy
Directed by Sally Potter
Conductor: Edward Gardner
London Coliseum, 29th September to 23rd November (15 performances)
Reviewed by Mark Valencia

Whereas the last ENO season closed on the fiasco of Kismet, an old musical with dubious operatic credentials, the current one gets into its stride with a true opera that’s often (glibly) dubbed the ‘first musical’. And it’s true – the hits just keep on coming. Indeed, a recent revival of Carmen Jones leads one to wonder why Oscar Hammerstein ever bothered to tinker with the original at all. His Broadway hybrid has quickly dated in a way Bizet’s masterpiece never will, for all the abuse it suffers at the hands of directors du jour.

This time round it’s the turn of the Orlando director Sally Potter to use this titanic opera as her toybox. Let’s start with the music, though, because here ENO has served up a feast. The best news of all is happening down in the pit, where Edward Gardner is galvanizing the orchestra into an exciting musical force. There are many opportunities during this Carmen to divert one’s gaze from the stage and thrill instead to the energy and synergy going on between conductor and players. As with last season’s Death in Venice, Gardner’s judgements are spot-on and the whole thing sounds a million dollars. And it is ravishingly sung. Alice Coote makes her title role début in sensational style, her voice like molten gold and her hushed moments spellbinding the entire Coliseum. She is matched by Julian Gavin’s deeply considered José (no Don here) and by the plangent soprano of Katie Van Kooten as Micaëla. Only the ENO Chorus continues to disappoint: most west end musicals can field a stronger team than this, and their poor diction alone justified the presence of surtitles for Christopher Cowell’s clever but distracting translation.

Eyes closed, this is a memorable, sun-drenched Carmen. Eyes open, we have Potter to contend with. We start in a CCTV surveillance compound; by Act 3 we are on the crossing bridge of a motorway service area. Es Devlin’s designs are drab and spare, in keeping with Potter’s night-time vision of an amorphous, semi-totalitarian landscape (Britain?), and only in Act 4, where the action moves to a recognisable Spain, do we see daylight.

‘Director’s theatre’ is all very well provided it works. The overiding problem with this take on Carmen is that it creates so many problems for itself, then fails to solve them. For example, the appearance inside the security compound of a white-clad children’s chorus makes no sense whatsoever, and their exhortation to ‘join the ranks of God’s batallion’ suggests that Potter herself had little idea how to shoe-horn this set piece into her concept. If she had adopted a more consistently stylised approach she might have got away with it; instead, her staging is often Kismet-bad. Formless crowds swamp David Kempster’s Escamillo during his big number and his arrival goes for nothing. A hundred smugglers risk death by spanning the motorway, improbable prostitutes totter on stilettos they do not know how to wear and for some reason both Mercédès and Frasquita are presented as Amy Winehouse. Most seriously of all, the director sanctions no visible hint of sexual frisson between Carmen and José (although vocally they compensate in spades), and thereby betrays the very essence of the opera.

Carmen is being performed only 15 times until the 23rd November for dates and more information visit
Photos by Tristram Kenton: Top - Alice Coote & David Kempster, Middle - Carmen Company, Bottom - Alice Coote & Julian Gavin
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