Productions of Carmen at English National Opera seem to go in rotation – traditional, modern, traditional, modern, as each offers a corrective to the one before. After Jonathan Miller’s prim, passionless 1995 staging it was time for a new look with some modern grit and that is what the filmmaker Sally Potter has aimed for.
Her Carmen is happening here and now. Film of the audience gathering outside the theatre suggests we are players in the drama and the main characters – Carmen, a prostitute, and José, a night security officer – could be among the shadowy figures lurking in the alleys round the back of the Coliseum. The production, designed by Es Devlin, has a striking, contemporary look and feel.
The problem is that Potter is not very good at telling a story: the film sequences are soon dropped; a bevy of transvestites wearing formal Spanish mantillas hints ineffectively at Almodóvar; and a pair of tango dancers keep coming on at inopportune moments, as if they are unaware an opera performance is going on.
Most fatally, all the dialogue has been cut. After the embarrassment of Miller’s production, which gave us Cockneys on a weekend break in Ibiza, it might seem that could only be an advantage, but once the linking narrative has been taken away, there are crucial parts of the opera that do not make a lot of sense.
This is a shame, as ENO has assembled a strong team of voices. Even at less than full throttle after an infection, Alice Coote is a first-class singer. She wisely underplays the title role, suggesting many layers of half-revealed psychological truths that make her Carmen a deep and absorbing enigma. The bond with José is never properly explained – bring back that dialogue! – but that is not the fault of Julian Gavin, one of the strongest tenors ENO has to field. Among an average supporting cast the best of the rest was Katie Van Kooten’s gleamingly sung Micaela.
The new music director Edward Gardner conducted a big-house Carmen with plenty of colour, which should have been enough to get the opera to take off. There may be a livewire production in here struggling to get out, but at Saturday’s performance – the opening night of the new season – the voltage came and went.