Carmen review – revival's real stars are Peleggi and the ENO orchestra

Coliseum, London
Justina Gringyte returns to the title role in Calixto Bieito’s 70s-set production, with Sean Panikkar a convincing José, plus an eyecatching ENO debut from Nardus Williams

It’s the world’s most performed French opera, but the success of Bizet’s Carmen has always rested on its parade of predictable Spanish icons: Gypsies, hot sun, seduction, bullfight. In Calixto Bieito’s 2012 production for English National Opera – now in its second revivalat the Coliseum – the Spain is General Franco’s rather than the exoticised landscape of mid-19th-century engravings, the sun beats down on an almost empty stage and the only bull we see is a massive horned signpost in silhouette. But the tourist-snap principle persists. In place of the corsets-and-cigarettes ubiquitous elsewhere, Bieito delights in 70s references, from Gypsies – who could have been Top of the Pops backing dancers – to a small fleet of vintage Mercedes sedans, apparently the ride of choice for Franco-era smugglers. The Saturday-at-the-supermarket parking scramble got a laugh.

And Carmen did, after all, start life at Paris’s Opéra Comique, where frivolity was encouraged, but the updated setting otherwise remains, frustratingly, just alternative costuming for operatic business as usual.

The singing was mixed. Back in the title role, Justina Gringyte moved with ease and shone in Carmen’s seguidilla (a showcase for the ultra-rich lower reaches of her full-fat soprano), though her tuning elsewhere was sometimes uncomfortable. As José, Sean Panikkar was a fitting combination of needy and nasty, channelled through an effective mix of slightly nasal earnestness, fleeting lyricism and brute force. Nardus Williams’s Micaëla – another big, creamy voice and one to listen out for on the basis of this ENO debut – was a steelier foil for Carmen than most. Ashley Riches’ Escamillo (a lone suit-wearer among the riot of patterns and khaki) was at the lighter end of the bullfighter spectrum but had suavity to burn. Alex Otterburn’s razor-edged Moralès stood out among the smaller roles.

The highlight of this performance, though, came from the pit. Conducted by Valentina Peleggi with immense energy and decisiveness, the ENO orchestra was on excellent form: deliciously pert in a fast, taut prelude; feather-light in the seguidilla; expansive, with beautifully sculpted woodwind solos in the atmospheric opening of act three – and constantly, minutely sensitive to the shifts of dramatic temperature on stage throughout.

• Carmen is at the Coliseum, London, until 27 February.


Flora Willson

The GuardianTramp

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