Carmen by George Bizet at the London Coliseum, reviewed by John O’Brien.
Strange days indeed. The 7-Eleven food chain admits to playing opera to shoo beggars and drunks away from their stores. The Arts Council withdraws funding from the English National Opera and suggest (euphemism for insist?) they relocate to Manchester. This prompts The Times to write an editorial punning on the ENO as being reduced to a Beggars Opera (ironically the original Beggars Opera of 1728 was said to have made “John Rich,Gay and John Gay,Rich”). And the Welsh Rugby Football Union ban the singing of “Delilah” before Welsh Rugby internationals as the song trivialises the murder of women (“She stood there laughing/I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more”).
On those grounds Carmen is also problematic. Given this challenging context it was uplifting to enter the Coliseum last night and see that the ENO is putting up a fight and will not go gently into that good night. Another Welsh reference. Chief Executive Stuart Murphy, unashamedly speaking in a regional accent, put the case for the ENO persuasively and forcefully. He pointed out that under 21’s go free. The stalls were packed with high profile ENO supporters who clearly came out en mass to show solidarity at this critical time. Dame Margaret Hodge, the “Mother of the House” Harriet Harman and Chris Smith were there from the world of politics. David Morrissey and Myleene Klass added some class and showbiz glamour. The feeling of togetherness was palpable.
The show itself was tremendous. Well, its Carmen so you can’t go wrong really – the most famous and popular opera of all time. The music is superb, the songs memorable and the storyline irresistible. But still, it has to be staged and performed to be realised.
Does this production succeed? I believe it does, yes.
It’s set in 1970’s Spain, in the dying days of Franco’s Neo Fascist regime. Clearly this is to make the story more relatable for modern audiences. This works well in a number of ways. Most obviously it allows the show to bring out the dark underbelly of Spanish society in the 1970’s. For example, the scene in the bullring with the baying mob hero worshipping Escamillo (the charismatic Nmon Ford) the bull fighter and glorifying in the death of the bull. The irrational hysteria and group thinking of the people is terrifyingly on show. All the more so as they look so nice and ordinary. The 1970’s setting gives scope for this production’s most outrageous joke: the use of cars on stage. Cars/ Carmen – obvious when you think of it, but like Marcel Duchamp’s “Urinal” of 1917, both clever and original. Hereabouts the cars represent both a modern version of the travelling gypsy camp and the bohemian counter cultures nod to Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Freedom is a car journey. Or as Mr Toad would say “the open road – toot toot.” The Franco regime in the 1970’s crystallises the image of a whole society driven by the desire to kill. The soldiers kill, the bull fighters kill, the people goad others to kill, the criminals kill, and so do the lovers kill. What makes Carmen so irresistible is that the killing is done to a haunting beautiful soundtrack of lyrical ecstasy. My mind was torn between the horror of the violence and the sheer beauty of the art. It’s a very bewildering conjunction that is hard to distance oneself from. Rationally I felt the urge to say “no” but emotionally I felt overwhelmed. That’s opera I suppose. Whatever it is, it works and it makes for a unique and unforgettable experience.
Carmen is like Lord Byron “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Is she mad? Probably – bi-polar certainly. She moves from man to man like Mr Toad does from craze to craze. Bad certainly. Dangerous to know, undoubtedly. She takes living by her own rules to the limit. She’s testing the boundaries and she doesn’t hold back. She reminds me of a rock star who lives for now and doesn’t really care about the future or actually wants to die (aged 27). What Philip Larkin called the desire for oblivion. This makes her fearless and immune to the usual rules most of us live by. So on the one hand, she is enormously attractive, but simultaneously extremely dangerous. Ginger Costa-Jackson the Italian – American mezzo- soprano captures this two sidedness wonderfully. One moment she is seductive and alluring, the next a spitting, hair pulling, ear biting street fighter. As the bull fighter toys with the bull, so Carmen toys with men.
When Carmen meets Don Jose (Sean Pannikkar – superb) it seems like we are in Romeo and Juliet territory, but how quickly we move to the world of Othello. Except here, there is no Iago. Don Jose is his own Iago. His descent into the terrible depths of jealous love is what gives Carmen its shuddering spine tingling truthfulness. The last scene I found almost unwatchable but it is human…all too human.
Kerem Hasan’s conducting of the ENO orchestra is faultless. He gets the tempo and mood just right for every scene. The chorus is wonderful. Every crowd scene sparkles with life and vivacity. Director Jamie Manton has put together a clear and compelling vision to shape and present the opera so as to be both entertaining for a contemporary audience and true to the original. I was very impressed with the vocal range of the four principal performers. They can all project so that they can be heard throughout the considerable space of the Coliseum. This may seem obvious but I have been to productions where this isn’t so. A special mention for Carrie-Ann Williams on her debut singing the role of Micaela. One of her lines was about not being scared of Carmen. She clearly took those words onboard as she showed no fear on stage last night.
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