Calixto Bieito’s Carmen is far removed from sun-drenched, picture postcard Seville. A bull and flamenco dresses make appearances, but these are nothing but illusions: the giant Osborne sherry company bull that looms over Act III is a silhouette, spectacularly collapsed and dismantled in the prelude to the final act; the flamenco dresses are donned by Frasquita and Mercédès to fool the customs officers. The Catalan director updates the action to the final years of Franco’s dictatorship and in Joan Anton Rechi’s revival, the results are often gritty and fierce, if unlikely to do anything for the Spanish tourist trade.

Justina Gringyte (Carmen) © Alastair Muir
Justina Gringyte (Carmen)
© Alastair Muir

Alfons Flores’ set is a bare box featuring a telephone kiosk – from which Carmen emerges, singing her habanera to her ex-lover down the phone – and a flagpole, to which she is tied when arrested by Don José. Leering soldiers and officers wielding whips immediately establish the Tarantino-esque violence of Bieito’s vision; an atmosphere filled with dust and testosterone. Zuniga is beaten to death and urinated on. A near-naked soldier runs circles around the parade ground as some sort of punishment until he collapses, exhausted. The circle he traces around the stage is marked out again by Lillas Pastia as Act IV’s bullring, within which the fatal confrontation between Carmen and Don José takes place.

In the prelude to Act III, featuring a beautifully played flute solo, a soldier strips off his uniform and dances in the moonlight. But some of Bieito’s images now seem tired and clichéd. A battered Mercedes makes for Lillas Pastia’s inn in Act II, atop which Carmen squirms and sprawls herself. Disturbingly, a little girl is tarted up at the smugglers’ camp… a future Carmen-in-waiting? The excitement of the toreadors’ procession is conveyed by an excitable crowd and a rope… and you can’t help but feel cheated.

© Alastair Muir
© Alastair Muir

Justina Gringyte’s Carmen was something of a paradox. She acted the part terrifically – sexy, and seductive in luring the men, like a caged panther when emotionally wounded. She was especially strong in the Card Scene and she demonstrated Carmen’s destructive power on those around her. Vocally, she failed to seduce me, her caustic mezzo far too razor-like and rasping, although arguably this fits Bieito’s vision of the hard-as-nails gypsy. Poor diction meant reliance on surtitles.

Eleanor Dennis’ handbag wielding, selfie-snapping Micaëla proved herself every inch as strong as Carmen in her attempt to win back José – her sneer of triumph at the end of Act III was vicious – but the characterisation is at odds with Bizet’s music. She coped admirably with her difficult aria, displaying a soprano with plenty of colour.

Eric Cutler (Don José) and Justina Gringyte (Carmen) © Alastair Muir
Eric Cutler (Don José) and Justina Gringyte (Carmen)
© Alastair Muir

Eric Cutler ensured that Don José is no mummy's boy, quickly revealing his pathological nature in his initial duet with Micaëla. The American tenor, making his ENO debut, has an attractive timbre, without being overly bright at the top. Credit to him for an excellently delivered Flower Song, sensitively observing Bizet’s dynamic markings. Leigh Melrose’s Escamillo – more city spiv than macho bullfighter – sang a rousing Toreador Song, even if the role requires a bit more heft. Both he and Cutler executed an exciting Mercedes-hopping duel in Act III and Escamillo’s duet with Carmen found both Melrose and Gringyte in sensual voice.

The members of the ENO Chorus gave of themselves enthusiastically, however awkward the pelvic-thrusting direction thrown their way. Sir Richard Armstrong led a breezy account of the score, often quite at odds with the violence of Bieito’s staging. And this, for me, is the problem with the production. Visually and emotionally, it strikes a powerful impression, but one that too rarely connects with Bizet’s music.

***11