In his production of George Bizet’s Carmen, Calixto Bieito gives a decidedly unsentimental take on the opera. Stripped of flamenco dresses, castanets and all references to gypsies, his production attempts to focus on the tragic story of a free-willed woman whose downfall is her blatant sexuality in a male-dominated world. While he manages this to a certain extent, the rest proved at times deeply frustrating.

Bieito’s Carmen is set in present day-ish Spain, its only defining feature being the presence of bull fighting. At the centre of the production is the character of Carmen, an ultimately tragic character brought down by the male-dominated society around her, not some vampish seductress, but more human, more fallible. She is still aware of her sexuality and that men find her attractive, but there is another, more innocent consciousness around this. While the production strives to make Carmen a fully realised woman, the remaining characters mostly seem to be reduced into crude caricatures. Granted, there might not be much to flesh out in a few of them, but the contrast was a bit too glaring.

Perhaps the most frustrating element of the production was the portrayal of the soldiers. They are all Foreign Legionnaires, men who have left their homes in search of an, if not better, at least other life. They’re perennially sexually frustrated, making lewd advances towards any woman in the vicinity, be it Micaëla or the factory workers. The portrayal of male lust in an opera like Carmen is certainly not uncalled for, but the male chorus was boiled down to perpetually horny caricatures standing in the background breathing heavily. Bieito also made good use of male extras in various stages of undress (including a nude ballet before Act III), for seemingly no other reason than the titillation of toned arms and impossibly flexed abs. Seeing how Bieito clearly attempted to humanise and de-sexualise the character of Carmen, this choice was puzzling.

There also seems to be a trend in recent Bieito productions to shine bright lights into the audience. The message of “you’re seeing yourself mirrored onstage” can be very effective when used sparingly, but here it was like being hammered over the head with a spotlight. It happened so often that the only effect was blinding and annoying the audience. It might be effective and thought-provoking, but when you can’t see what’s going on onstage, it’s just irritating.

Katarina Bradić delivered the evening’s strongest performance as Carmen, both dramatically and vocally. Her Carmen was almost girlish at times, and there was a knowing innocence to her arias, going less for the all-out sexual predator that Carmen often can be. Her phrases were surprisingly long, and she sang very properly, taking few liberties with tempo or note values. Still, her Carmen was engaging. While his voice was very attractive, Dmytro Popov as Don José was generally too loud, thereby ridding climactic moments of much of their excitement, and nuance was generally lacking.

Hamida Kristoffersen proved a lovely if somewhat timid Micaëla, and despite some odd tempo issues, her act III aria was wonderfully sung. Her first act duet with Don José was lovely, although she was often overpowered by Popov in softer dynamics. Yngve Søberg’s Escamillo was very handsomely sung, but his acting amounted to a bit of determined walking and stock poses. The chorus, so central to this opera, sang wonderfully, especially the women. Conductor Antonino Fogliani led a spirited performance, his tempi on the fast side, although never rushed. The instrumental entr’actes were beautifully played, especially the flute solo of the prelude to act III.

While the concept of Calixto Bieito’s Carmen is an interesting one, poor direction and dubious ideas kept the opera from being as thrilling as it could be.