If you have been at any London tube station in recent weeks, you will most likely have seen an eye-catching advert of a blonde beauty in a sparkling pink dress on the hood of a car. No, this was not announcing a new women’s fragrance or hair colour. It is in fact the poster for the English National Opera’s latest production of Carmen. The blonde poster girl is Justyna Gringyte, who plays the title role and her eye-catching photo is an introduction to this unusual, very successful take on Bizet’s classic.
It would be difficult to find a single member of the packed opening night audience who did not know the rousing overture that starts Carmen and so there was an air of familiarity as the orchestra played the famous music and the audience waited for the Coliseum curtains to rise. This familiarity was abruptly stopped as the curtains rose to reveal a bare, dusty set decorated by only a flagpole, a telephone box and a row of barely visible, eerily placed soldiers. Calixto Bieto, opera director extraordinaire, hailed as the ‘Quentin Tarantino of the opera world’, has a clear vision with this production. Premiered in 2012, Bieto’s Carmen steers clear from Spanish stereotypes of castanets and flamenco dresses (although flamenco dresses do make a comic appearance in a plan to swindle some customs officers) and instead focuses on the seductive yet seedy undertones to the libretto. Only a Spanish flag, and the famous Osborne Bull silhouette gives the production a geographic placement.
As is the case with most famous operatic productions, traditional interpretations of the libretto don’t quite cut it anymore. Though Bizet’s Carmen shocked the audience when it was first premiered, today’s audience has become immune to that same kind of scandal. This production has kept up with the times in terms of creating that same kind of shock by including full (although not always fully explained) nudity as well as some darker undertones of child grooming and abuse. Because of these, sadly, very contemporary discomforts of modern society, the audience was suitably unsettled as the libretto is meant to make one feel.
The chorus shone both as excitable fans of the bullfight and as surly, perverted guards. The acting in this production was the best I’ve seen with the ENO and the singing was very commendable indeed. Justina Grigynte, the blonde bombshell Carmen thrived in her role as a flirtatious and confused woman caught between multiple men and although there were some slight diction difficulties which made the audience somewhat dependent on the surtitles, the tone and musicality of her singing matched her acting skills. Eric Cutler performed stunningly as a complex Don José who sang beautifully with my personal favourite, Eleanor Dennis as Micaëla.
This is a breath of fresh, yet seedy, air into a total opera classic. The excellent singing and exhilarating story telling is reason enough to go, but, as an added bonus, you also get to see how they fit six (yes, six) cars onto the Coliseum stage at the beginning of the third act. This is not a production to miss – catch it either at the Coliseum or streamed live at a cinema near you.
Carmen continues until Friday 3 July, book here.
Written by Thoroughly Modern Missy, Angelica Bomford.