When Barrie Kosky’s production of Carmen first appeared at Covent Garden earlier this year, it received – let’s be kind – mixed reviews. But last night at the Royal Opera House, there was a lot to like. Just don’t go hoping for cigarette girls and wild gypsy dancers.
Kosky’s interpretation feels more German than Spanish – and, indeed, it was first produced in Frankfurt in 2016. He favours a Brechtian distance between the performers and the story. And he puts them on a stage where you’ll find no cigarette factory or bullring, no steamy bar or mountain hideout. Just a massive staircase that fills the entire stage (design by Katrin Lea Tag). Back in February, this was apparently used to channel Busby Berkeley though there is no sign of this now and the chorus in particular are positioned and lit (by Joachim Klein) on the steps to striking effect.
It’s not just the staging that deviates from the norm. Some of the music Bizet himself jettisoned has been reinstated (this is a long evening at three and a half hours) while the spoken dialogue has been replaced by a narrator (a sort of Carmen voice-over) who begins by listing the 30 requirements for female beauty but is also a dab hand at reciting stage directions. This helps as – if you’re a Carmen novice – you’ll have no idea whether you’re up in the hills or on the streets of Seville in this monochrome staging.
It’s not a Carmen entirely without colour, though. She appears first as a matador, dressed in pink. Then (this is an evening heavy with referencing) in a gorilla suit that she sheds to reveal a shirt and tie during the Habanera. Surely there could have been a better idea than this for what is arguably opera’s most seductive song – though even this iconic aria drifts off, losing its way in that long-discarded, now resurrected, extra music. The narrator’s voice is steamy, suggestive. Carmen herself is not. French mezzo Gaelle Arquez portrays her as sexy, true, but also manipulative, coldly conscious of the value of her desirability.
This is a perfectly reasonable interpretation of Carmen but out on this bare stage, with all this ironic self-awareness, it leaves Arquez and her Don Jose (Brian Jagde) miles apart. There’s just no chemistry between them and they never quite manage to convince us they feel passion, obsession or hate. Even when the bullfighter Escamillo (an unlikely rather bland Alexander Vinogradov, despite his strong bass) appears as Don Jose’s rival, there is little on-stage tension. And Don Jose’s duets with Michaela (a honey-toned Eleonora Buratto) – usually some of the most touching moments of the opera – fall flat. The music is still soaring but where’s the drama?
Did I say empty stage? It is, in fact, filled most of the time with the excellent chorus and equally brilliant children’s chorus all clearly having the time of their lives. The eight superb dancers are on stage almost constantly, interacting with the soloists and the chorus, sometimes acting as a Greek chorus commenting mutely on the action. They have an exhausting repertoire of choreography (Otto Pichler) ranging across white-face clowns, paso-dobleing toreadors, Bob Fosse Cabaret-style routines and an astonishingly good tango for two men.
As we build towards the climax, Carmen appears on Escamillo’s arm as a death-bride, veiled, all in black, with a train that covers that enormous staircase. Don Jose appears with his knife to do the deed – but do we care? But then judging from her final shrug, it seems Carmen doesn’t care either.
Carmen at the Royal Opera House, Bow St, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD on 4, 8, 11, 14, 19 and 22 December. For more information and tickets please visit roh.org.uk or call the box office 0207 304 4000. Production images by Bill Cooper.