Captivating Carmen

Rating: 5

By Margaret Bemand

There is no cigarette factory, no rocky pass in the mountains, no smugglers’ inn, no bullring even. Instead the stage is completely given over to a huge staircase and all the action takes place at the bottom, top or somewhere in between, and the whole cast spends much of its time dashing up and down. I absolutely loved this production, but I can see how traditionalists would be less happy. It injects a cross between a cabaret show and Greek tragedy into the piece and the company uses it like an amphitheatre. The chorus sleeps on it as though they were on a mountainside, hang out on it as though they were a on street corner outside a factory and watch from it as the parade of bullfighters goes by. On the other hand it’s stark and dark, and the lighting crew have their work cut out for them in that every character has to be spot-lit. The costumes are dark too. The opera opens with Carmen suited as a bullfighter, strutting up and down the steps. This is the last time we see her in colour. In fact, the colour palate for the chorus and principals is shades of black and white, which dissenters might take as drab but I would suggest gives great focus on colour when it appears – Escamillo’s pink stockings, the bullfighters suits, dear sweet Micaëla, stand out much more than they would have. I can’t not mention the gorilla suit, but I’ll not dwell on it.   

Barrie Kosky’s direction is as stylised and deliberate as possible – this is not a production of brow clutching or exclamation. The chorus acts as part of the setting – they are either moving (and every movement has a purpose) or absolutely stationary. The principals and the chorus act and dance their socks off, ably led by a company of six dancers who sew mayhem and wit into every scene.  Diehards may take offense – they are not part of the script or the opera as we know it, but they jolly it up whilst keeping the audience’s focus on the story. I think they’re wonderful.

And so to the music. This production has replaced the recitatives with recorded words. Purists will hate this but they’re humorous, spoken in a beautiful voice and fully translated in the surtitles. The night I saw it, Gaëlle Arquez singing the role of Carmen was spellbinding – and it will no doubt be just as superb with Anaïk Morel in the role. Bryan Hymel’s Don José will be just as menacing and powerful as Brian Jagde who had the role that night. This is a work that the Opera House knows back to front, and the relish they feel when performing it is apparent, from the soloists through the choruses and the orchestra. It’s a rollicking night and fabulous fun – if you only ever see one opera in your life, see this. But not if you’re grumpy or curmudgeonly, or set in your ways.

Performances on 16, 20th July at 7pm, 13th July at 12 noon

Royal Opera House Covent Garden, WC2E, 16, 20 July at 7pm and 13 July at midday;

020-7304 4000,