A degree of fun was poked online at the advertising for English National Opera’s revival of Calixto Bieito’s visceral production of Bizet’s Carmen. For some, the slogan “She creates a hunger in men. But will it now consume her?” seemed trite and obvious. Yet the quality of performance from this cast, their total immersion into their roles seemed in many ways to make that advertising slogan seem entirely apt to the production. This revival may well be the highlight of ENO’s season, combining quality of singing and acting with an incisive directorial concept, topped with an impressive performance in the pit.

Sean Panikkar (Don José) and Justina Gringytė (Carmen)
© Richard Hubert Smith

This production has now been around long enough to be familiar and displays Bieito’s typical insight into the psychology of characters, together with an innate interest in bringing greater detail to more fringe characters that in other hands can often be left rather at a loose end. Bringing the setting forward to the closing days of Franco’s regime lets him colour the background with the murky tinge of tyranny, an excellent companion to the rife corruption of the second and third acts. Bieito avoids clutter, filling the stage instead with a full complement of soldiers and girls in the first act, later replaced by an impressive selection of battered and clearly high-polluting cars later on. Bieito’s bravest decision, perhaps, for an environmentally-conscious audience. Carmen allows to home in on the conflict between the many who conform and the few who seek individuality, while also honing in on the male/female divide: heightening the aggressive masculinity of the soldiers and the smugglers, paired against the dual femininity represented by the sexuality of Carmen and the more maternal Micaëla, restrained and chaste. Both are victims on this stage, but both seek to reject victimhood.

Nardus Williams (Micaëla) and Sean Panikkar (Don José)
© Richard Hubert Smith

While her accent did not entirely lend a Spanish tinge to the character, Lithuanian mezzo Justina Gringytė gave us a formidable Carmen with palpable stage presence. Sensual physicality, a fiery personality offset by just enough vulnerability to be convincing, she gave us a Carmen of tragic humanity. Gringytė has an excellent voice with the heft to rise through ensemble scenes. It’s a sizeable instrument, secure at the top with a smoky depth to it that lingers in the ear. Where the success in the production lies is in the chemistry with Sean Panikkar, her Don José. Panikkar’s total absorption into the role was nothing short of thrilling. The physicality of his performance, that sense we had of his need to tear clothing, to destroy his surroundings, his all-consuming anger, was a tour de force. More than that, though, was his carefully managed depiction of Don José’s transformation in the opera, his descent from restrained officer to a desperate nobody. Their final scene was one of the most theatrically engaging performances I have seen in recent times and will linger in the memory. Vocally, Panikkar’s diction and projection was strong and he has a bright and easy higher register which gave us some excellent top notes.

Ashley Riches (Escamillo)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Against this fiery pair, the restrained sensitivity of Nardus Williams’ Micaëla was a cooling contrast. She gave poised performance, dignified in the face of the coarse pawing of the platoon, quietly devastating as she witnessed the transformation of Don José in Act 3. Ashley Riches’ swaggering Escamillo was a distasteful figure, lithe and slippery, but an interesting contrast to Don José. Keel Watson was a thuggish Zuniga, Alex Otterburn a sinister Moralès, though the removal of his trousers in Act 2 left him a figure of ridicule. Ellie Laugharne and Samantha Price gave sympathetic performances as Frasquita and Mercédès.

The chorus gave a typically excellent performance, vibrant and energetic with clear diction. In the pit, conductor Valentina Peleggi led a full-blooded and sultry reading of the score with strong performances from the brass. Pacing was spot on and one felt a clear unity between the players and singers. A revival worth seeing for even the most jaded of opera-goers.