Barrie Kosky’s adaptation of Carmen is a bit hit-and-miss. There is plenty to enjoy, but aesthetically it is a crazy concoction that often distracts from the music. In the end, however, despite its confusing staging (mixing vaudeville with commedia dell’arte with surrealism with what-not) the show belongs to its star Gaelle Arqez as the famous femme fatale.
The production starts with her dressed as a toreador in shocking pink, reclining on the single piece of stage design which dominates the whole stage: a high, towering staircase. Meanwhile the female narrator (Kosky’s adaptive trick to avoid recitative) quite cheekily describes the ideal female body (Carmen’s body) in minute details as Bizet’s heroine slides slowly, sexily down the stairs. Thus the focus from the start is on Carmen, women, and their wiles, and there is much more of that throughout the production. Certainly this is not a show for #MeToo generation, and I found many scenes drawing attention to sexuality of women challenging, and in many ways old-fashioned.
When we finally hear Carmen sing she is inexplicably dressed in a gorilla suit (perhaps a reference to a famous German – Deutsches Theater – adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello with Susanne Wolff in the title role) but as the show goes on you cannot really see the reason for it. There is a lot of such randomness introduced in this production and it often distracts from the operatic performances and Bizet’s story. The most exasperating were some of the dancing routines which seemed to have mocked the characters in the opera.
Let us stick, however, to positives. Arqez is a wonderful mezzosoprano and even the busiest and most distracting dancing routines cannot stop you from listening and watching her. She is the perfect Carmen in every way, so confident and charismatic that even some small early intonation problems can be easily overlooked and forgiven.
Don José (Brian Jagde) is overshadowed by her performance and the distracting, occasionally half-naked male dancers. Jagde’s natural tenor voice is lyrical and perhaps old-fashioned but it often works well in the love scenes. He certainly has his moments and he helped create on-stage chemistry with Arquez’s Carmen. When in their duet he sings the line ‘Carmen you have to love me too,’ I had shivers down my spine – the romance and passion was there on stage and in the music, and you could feel it did not bode well.
When watching the production, I could not quite pinpoint why this innovative adaptation which gives up on recitative and traditional setting left me cold. And sadly I realise now that the main culprit is Katrin Lea Tag’s 1920s black and grey minimalist aesthetic, which makes everything look a bit drab and sad, even despite the numerous silly balletic routines and lots of comedy. It is therefore fortuitous for the show that debutante Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson drove the tempi really hard making the action move along quickly.
The biggest surprise of the day was for me Italian-born Eleonora Buratto, who made her Covent Garden debut as Micaëla. Her voice is not yet impressive, but so poetic is her delivery I felt really touched by her story, her unrequited love for Don Jose. On the other hand, Alexander Vinogradov as Escamillo is a powerful assured voice but he was made to look so silly (he is carried horizontally on the dancers’ shoulders at one point in one of the silliest moment of the production) that it was difficult to feel interested or care about his pursuit of Carmen. His bass is too declamatory for my liking too, but it perhaps suits the satire that Kosky goes for in his scenes.
Ultimately the main problem of this adaptation is that it does not know what it wants to achieve. It is overworked and too busy. More than anything it seems to be a pastiche, although at the same time there are some serious undertones in it strengthened by monochrome stage design. I think it would be much better if Kosky decided to do one or the other – a guilty pleasure pastiche or a dark tragic story for our time. Yet it is exciting to see what new things can be done with opera today and that is why this take on Carmen is still worth your viewing.
- By George Bizet
- Adapted and directed by Barrie Kosky
- Stage design and costumes by Katrin Lea Tag
- Cast includes: Gaelle Arquez, Eleonora Burrato, Brian Jagde, Alexander Vinogradov
- Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
- Until 22 December 2018