Set in a convulsed 1970s Spain at the fag-end of Franco's rule, this much-travelled Carmen (it has played in various countries since the end of the last century) is one of the most idiomatically convincing accounts of Bizet's opera in recent times. Its visionary director, a man capable of delivering stink-bombs on his off days, has no fear of the Coliseum's wide open prairies. Yes, Matthew Bourne may have put a car at the heart of The Car Men, but the badass Catalan Calixto Bieito fills the stage with half a dozen of the things. His smugglers can barely move for battered Mercs.
Bieito makes bold, eye-filling use of Martin Fitzpatrick's marvellous ENO Chorus – including supernumeraries and a disarmingly free-spirited contingent of children – but he also understands the power of emptiness within simple designs by Alfons Flores that are spiced with the Iberian outdoors. When Carmen and Don José play out their final corrida they're locked in their own lonely bullring without a refuge or hiding place in sight.
Sadly, while the opera's sun-addled atmosphere soaks the stage (abetted by Bruno Poet's Mediterranean-infused lighting), little of it seeps down into the straight-laced orchestra pit. Bizet let his music rip with earthy abandon but Richard Armstrong and his players sound fearful of getting sand on their spats.
If there has to be a translation of an opera whose composed language, French, is so integral to the musical sound, at least Christopher Cowell's careful effort does the job well, save in Carmen's excessive jaw work during the Habañera. The original's dialogue is cut to a minimum, which is a blessing since most of the principal players tend to utter what's left of it in open-throated opera-singer-ese.
This Carmen should be a keeper
Justina Gringyte, freshly crowned Young Singer of the Year at the International Opera Awards, is a fabulous Carmen: irresistible yet inscrutable, voluptuous yet vulnerable, with a bewitching sultriness in her full-toned mezzo. Her attraction to Leigh Melrose's shady and roaringly well sung Escamillo makes absolute sense; her dalliance with Eric Cutler's Don José rather less so. The American tenor has all the notes and plenty of passion, but his limbs lack anchorage when they're not in use as levers or grappling hooks. Yet his Flower Song has plangency and emotional depth and his jealous rage at Escamillo bristles with animosity.
Limpid soprano Eleanor Dennis easily transcends her dowdy costume as Micaëla, while Rhian Lois and Clare Presland are the classiest, brassiest Frasquita and Mercédès you're likely to see and justifiably steal centre stage more than they probably ought.
This Carmen should be a keeper for English National Opera. Occasionally perverse, Bieito's staging is surprisingly light on perversion (although some extremes of human behaviour are darkly hinted at), its one visual indulgence a peaceful and evocative moment of nudity shortly after the interval. His production has the popular touch and betrays Bizet's intentions only rarely, as when Micaëla throws herself at Don José while the music tells us she's doing nothing of the sort. Give it a good cast, a happier conductor and revivals as meticulous as this one by Joan Anton Rechi, and it will be a company cornerstone.