Carmen, Bizet’s great tale of betrayal, boasts an admirably simple plot. Boy meets girl, both fall in love — girl gets bored, boy doesn’t, girl scorns boy, boy kills girl. Sadly, this acclaimed rendition by Calixto Bieito, revived by Jamie Manton for ENO, falls flat at every turn, without even the imperfect drama of something hideously wrong or grotesquely misjudged.
Trouble brews right from the outset. Bizet’s gorgeous, hot Seville setting has been replaced by the last gasp of Franco’s regime, with scenery that recollects, somehow, Beau Travail; no reason is ever given for making this change, since it impacts not at all on any moment of plot or dialogue. The only effect on the audience is to make us wish for a traditional Carmen, confident enough not to seek to make changes for the sake of changes — Bizet was content that love and rage were immortal themes, and so should we be. The production also is directed with absolute, second-by-second rigidity; I have gone on long enough in these pages previously about the problem with directing opera aggressively, so suffice it to say that Manton’s ‘revival’ looks as wooden and pre-ordained as all perfectly choreographed opera must.
I am also increasingly forced to the opinion that opera in English doesn’t work. This will no doubt be a hell of a blow to ENO, and I imagine they’ll be at my door by morning, besetting me with hired goons — but all the evidence must point to this conclusion. Bizet’s beautiful French, rendered unhappily in ill-fitting English, becomes trite and comical; “By the weekend I get lonely — Love is in the air,” sings our anti-heroine in Act 1. Is this serious? In the words of El Padre — if it’s not beautiful or funny, why hold on to it? What are lines like this supposed to add? If ENO, for the sake of its survival, opts not to take my suggestion to immediately rename themselves as the Foreign International Opera (FIO) and never speak a word of English again, they might at least demand better translations. A poor job in this department by Christopher Cowell.
If the point of opera is the music, and nothing but, then the forecast is even worse. Flat singing, sometimes compounded by missing notes, besets every scene. Gringyté and Panikkar do a reasonable job with their climaxes, but both forget how to do anything that might make the part between the very beginning and the very end of each song more than cursory. Both sing expressionlessly. Ashley Riches is even worse, muffled and grim, stomping around the stage while grating on the ear. His acting in between singing is so wooden and random that it looks like modern art. Gringyté and Panikkar are not as bad as that, but neither show even a hint of passion; strange and ruinous, in an opera about all-consuming, destructive love.
There are other problems — a children’s ballet with no point at all, the taking of a ‘selfie’ during a song, a view of backstage from my fairly central seat that let me watch every character coming into and out of character in the wings, singing that’s too quiet, an orchestra that’s almost inaudible, and really, really, really — have I mentioned this already? — bone-shakingly bad acting. Not one gripping moment; not one believable line. Bizet is better than this; the production is criminal. Yes, the stage often looks beautiful, the lighting is perfect, and Valentina Peleggi’s conducting is energetic and sometimes sublime; yet, these atone not at all for such an absurd mixture of unpalatable failures. It is not worth your evening, whoever you are — but it is an especially bad idea to attend if you’ve a real, heartfelt love of Bizet. I do, and I left in tears. What have they done to my friend?
- Music by Georges Bizet (1838 - 1875)
- Libretto: Henri Meilhac (1831–97) and Ludovic Halévy (1834–1908)
- Director: Calixto Bieito
- Revival Director: Jamie Manton
- Cast includes: Justina Gringyté, Sean Panikkar, Ashley Riches
- English National Opera
- Until 27 February 2020
- Running time: 2hrs 45 mins including interval