Carmen, ENO at the Coliseum

It is less than twelve months since Jonathan Miller's production of Carmen last received an airing by ENO, and it now returns to the repertory for a further 17 performances. I caught the second performance and despite the obtrusive chatter from the audience (first-timers, I'd hazard a guess) the evening proved to be a well thought out, solid and competent revival by David Ritch of Miller's original.

The staging still catchs the whiff of danger and sultriness of a Seville caught up in the Spanish Civil War, especially in Act Two, and this enables three of the four principals who are new to their roles in this production to fit into an overall ensemble which is extremely strong. Roberto Salvatori is held over as Escamillo from the last revival, and he seems to have added an extra sense of gravitas to the role which I thought was missing last time. He sings extremely well and is every inch the Matador matinee-idol.

Phyllis Pancella makes a sensational British stage debut in the title role. She plays the role of Carmen neither as a trollop nor as an aloof gypsy. She manages to combine aspects from both these standard characterisations and add her own unique thoughts, making her one of the most complete Carmen s I ve seen. Her gorgeously smoky mezzo-soprano voice also makes her one of the sexiest, perhaps only missing the ounce of extra volume needed for the finale. Certainly, Pancella has no need to coarsen the voice as many Carmen s feel the need to do, and every single word is fully audible. I hope Pancella returns to the Coliseum soon as she's a real find.

Sandra Ford, ENO's Violetta earlier in the season, is a good Micaela, but doesn't make the character seem anything more than boring. Catherine Savory and Susannah Clarke are luxury casting as Mercedes and Frasquita - they add a thrilling top line to the Act Two quintet. Only Alan Woodrow disappoints as Don Jose, with his forced tone and ungainly top-notes (often resorting to falsetto). No surprise that this Carmen dumps him in favour of the Matador.

The evening is further enhanced by excellent support in the pit from Michael Lloyd and lusty choral singing on stage. But really, that s all bonus. This Carmen would be worth catching for Pancella's superlative performance alone.

Keith McDonnell

Note: The following dates from the production's run in June 1998.

What a thrill to sit through a performance at the Coliseum that is so meticulously rehearsed, exceptionally well cast and providing, in its second revival, a more coherent view of this enigmatic work than three years ago when Jonathan Miller s production was new.

Carmen is a tricky work to bring off. Camp posturing and a whiff of Seville will simply not do. This revival goes to the heart of the tragedy, and within Peter J. Davidson s sets, conjures up a lurid, hot and passionate Seville of the 1930s.

Thankfully, the action has been considerably tightened, no more so than in Act 3, which for me has always been the one act that flags. Not here; Act 3 burns with an intensity I have not encountered before in the theatre, which makes the tragic denouement of the last Act all the more unbearable to witness.

Much of this is down to Sally Burgess Carmen. She has sung the role at the Coliseum before but not in this production. It is her riveting, smouldering and superbly sung performance that galvanises the production and her colleagues around her into giving such an incandescent performance. As Don Jose, David Rendall gives notice of his Otello in the autumn. His voice has taken on a thrilling edge, whilst sacrificing none of the lyricism which underpins this role. The finale between his dishevelled, broken Jose and Burgess still proud Carmen is quite simply hair-raising.

Margaret Richardson makes a lovely Micaela, with excellent support from Catherine Savory, Peter Snipp and Mary Hegarty. Riccardo Salvatori, usually such a vivid performer, does not have the vocal heft nor the necessary priapic swagger for the role of Escamillo, but it s a bit of a pig of a role anyway and he does his best.

Noel Davies conducts a sprightly performance in the pit, and the orchestra play with an authentic Gallic style. Every word, whether sung or spoken, is as clear as a bell.

Yet another excellent revival from the English National Opera, well worth visiting.

Keith McDonnell