Calixto Bieito’s reputation precedes him. Labelled the opera world’s Quentin Tarantino, he turns up in town with certain expectations in tow and it is ironic that the Spanish director’s 1999 Carmen – an important new production for English National Opera this season, though it has already been seen from Ghent to Palermo – is now regarded as something of a classic.
The stage would seem to be set for an all-out, blood-and-guts assault on Bizet’s opera. But that is not what we get: there is violence, yes, but the central focus is a lot less clear-cut. In Bieito’s depiction of a testosterone-filled, 1970s Spain there is always aggression in the background. He takes a stage that is empty apart from a smashed-up telephone booth and some cars and fills it with a seething mass of people, soldiers rampaging after any female within reach, looters, muggers, a mob of uninhibited revellers (the latter looking here suspiciously like a band of Brits on a package holiday).
At the centre of this whirlpool of humanity, though, lies a strangely muted central couple. Ruxandra Donose brings to the role of Carmen a first-rate voice and some cultivated singing. As a blonde, sophisticated woman, she clearly has her attractions, but there is barely a flash of gypsy fire in this Carmen, that combustible sense that you touch her and burn. If Adam Diegel’s Don José pines after her, it is more likely because he favours the idea of settling down to a comfortable life away from the mindless thuggery of the barracks. The American tenor has the basis of what could be an exceptional voice, if he can find a way to tame its searing intensity with a bit more ease. Does their fitful relationship work? Up to a point.
It does not help that Bieito has skewed the personalities of the other players. Micaëla has become such a sex-starved tart that Carmen is hardly in with a chance, when all we really want is to hear Elizabeth Llewellyn’s dream of a soprano sing the role as beautifully as she can. Meanwhile, Leigh Melrose has to play the star toreador Escamillo as a seedy has-been, undermining his valiant effort to give the role some pizzazz. The supporting roles are also hit-and-miss, Duncan Rock’s swaggering Moralès and Madeleine Shaw’s fruity Mercédès apart.
The evening passes quickly enough, partly because the dialogue has been cut to shreds (not necessarily a bad thing). Ryan Wigglesworth conducts with an attractively light touch, though his gentle appreciation of Bizet’s score is hardly what Bieito is inviting. There are several different performances of Carmen going on here. None is without its virtues, but they do not quite gel.