A great production is one that can be seen repeatedly and still have the same emotional impact while revealing new details and nuances at every performance. Calixto Bieito’s searing production of Carmen, revived again at English National Opera, is an excellent example. The Catalan director’s characteristically brutal assessment of parts of the human condition through the vehicle of Bizet’s most famous work remains as powerful as when it first premiered over ten years ago.

English National Opera Chorus
© Adiam Yemane

The latest appearance of the production is in safe hands under the supervision of revival director Jamie Manton, whose control and focus ensures that Bieito’s vision remains tight. Its exploration of toxic masculinity is at times difficult to watch and the abuse of women by men in uniform has a sharpened edge in light of recent events in London. The near-naked soldier running laps around his clothed comrades as the production opens – the heat gloriously conveyed by Bruno Poet’s lighting – and the contemptuous manner in which they treat his collapse make clear to us that their world is devoid of sympathy and weakness. It makes a striking contrast to the opening of the second half, the Entr'acte, in which a man dances, entirely naked this time, below a giant Osborne bull, one of the highlights of the production, a brief moment of stillness and reflection. Bieito’s exploration of the male gaze – the women are always being watched – is embodied in Carmen’s first appearance in a single telephone box, reminiscent of windows in a red light district is constantly present and the idea of women as things to be possessed is taken to its extreme as Don José drags Carmen’s corpse from the stage, a perverse Liebestod.

Sean Panikkar (Don José) and Ginger Costa-Jackson (Carmen)
© Adiam Yemane

Kerem Hasan led ENO’s orchestra in an energetic reading of the score, but the performance sounded under-rehearsed, with a couple of noticeable fluffs, and we were never given a real hit of the heat of Spain. Responsibility was therefore firmly on the performers who on the whole delivered a committed theatrical experience. Ginger Costa-Jackson, something of a Carmen specialist, didn’t immediately convince as the gypsy anti-heroine in the first act, in some respects perhaps capturing the character’s inscrutability, but as Act 2 unfurled her performance became compelling. Costa-Jackson’s ability to convey complex emotions with just a change of look was quite something: one could see, as Don José signalled his abrupt return to the barracks, regret and rejection combined with a growing concern that perhaps she had made the wrong choice of lover. Costa-Jackson has an appealing voice, smoky and round at the bottom with a supple higher register.

Carrie-Ann Williams (MIcaëla) and Sean Panikkar (Don José)
© Adiam Yemane

Sean Panikkar sang Don José in the previous ENO revival and has developed his interpretation further, giving us an insecure officer who gazes at Carmen with a perplexed curiosity that awakens an obsessive carnality that he cannot control. Panikkar was generous with his top notes, too, while showing a solid technique and clear diction. Carrie-Ann Williams was a late stand-in as Micaëla and gave a solid performance at such short notice. Her voice is perhaps a little too small for the Coliseum with some moments lost below the orchestra, but it’s an attractive instrument nonetheless. 

Nmon Ford (Escamillo) and Ginger Costa-Jackson (Carmen)
© Adiam Yemane

Nmon Ford played Escamillo like a celebrity footballer, sharp-suited and suave, but was distinctly underpowered in his lower register. Keel Watson, a convincing Zuniga in the last run, seemed a less menacing brute and more of a caricature this time round. Alexandra Oomens and Niamh O’Sullivan both made an impact as Frasquita and Mercédès. ENO’s chorus was as rousingly splendid as always, their performance in Act 4 particularly vivid. In the end however, despite the excellent cast, it was Bieito’s concept that remained in the mind; in an age when the arts are measured on “relevance”, his production ticks every box.