When you come to any Barrie Kosky production, you expect a bunch of new ideas. Most of the time, the ideas work: I’ve been five-star smitten in my last three Kosky outings. Not this time, though: Kosky’s ideas for Carmen at the Royal Opera were interesting as always, but the overall production fell a long way short of lighting my fire.

Anna Goryachova (Carmen) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Anna Goryachova (Carmen)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Kosky’s first Big Idea is to get rid of most of the usual dialogue and replace it by a voiceover of text drawn mainly from the opera’s stage directions and from the Mérimée novella. With much of this spoken text being from Carmen’s viewpoint, the intention is to instate her as the key protagonist (in contrast to the novella, which is clearly focused on Don José as a tragic figure). And broadly, the idea works: the voiceovers are cogently delivered by Claude de Demo and although they outstay their welcome, they serve a purpose in giving a clear setting for where we are in the narrative.

This is essential, because the staging is completely abstract. Designer Katrin Lea Tag places everything on a single staircase covering the full width of the stage and most of its height. Costumes are monochrome or dull (with very few exceptions such as Carmen’s shocking pink toreador suit worn during the prélude and Escamillo’s inexplicably pink stockings).

ROH Chorus © ROH | Bill Cooper
ROH Chorus
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Therefore, everything visual is accomplished by stage movement, and therein lies the problem: Otto Pichler’s choreography doesn’t summon up enough variety or sensitivity to the text to keep us interested.There’s a limited number of tricks: the crowd seething with arm movements or swirling across the stage, a group appearing threateningly over the horizon formed by the top of the stairs, Hollywood style, and swarming down, a single person spotlit halfway up the stairs. Half an hour in, you start to see the same patterns used repeatedly, with apparently little relation to events. Several of the visual tricks were the same as Pichler used in The Nose: what worked fine for in the context of undilute surrealism seemed hopelessly out of place in a strong narrative like Carmen. And the idea of staging the Habañera as a striptease out of a gorilla suit may sound like a clever subversion of sexual stereotype, but the joke wears off quickly.

Francesco Meli (Don José) and Kristina Mkhitryan (Micaëla) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Francesco Meli (Don José) and Kristina Mkhitryan (Micaëla)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

I can imagine this working with a truly magnetic, stage-dominating personality in the title role, but that’s not what we got. Anna Goryachova has a pleasant voice and sang the role well enough, but she didn’t create any real on-stage chemistry with Francesco Meli. The moments where the voices took me into the zone all came from Meli singing solo or in combination with Kristina Mkhitaryan’s Micaëla. Meli has the urgency and warmth of voice to thrill, Mkhitryan has the sweetness at the top to persuade you of the sweetness and strength of her character, and the magic between the two worked. I can’t say the same of Kostas Smoriginas’ Escamillo: another good voice singing smoothly and strongly, but without injecting any of the louche danger of the man.

Jacquelyn Stucker (Frasquita), Anna Goryachova (Carmen) and Aigul Akhmetashina (Mercédès) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Jacquelyn Stucker (Frasquita), Anna Goryachova (Carmen) and Aigul Akhmetashina (Mercédès)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The production’s big bright spot was the conducting of Jakub Hrůša, up there with the best accounts of the score I’ve ever heard. All the colour that was missing from the staging was there in the orchestra, and Hrůsa was masterful in switching tempi and dynamics to match features of the choreography (even if this implied a fearfully slow Seguedilla). As an aside: some reasonably serious musicological digging was done for this production, which uncovered new material such as an original Habañera. This was interesting, but perhaps not transformational.

For a Carmen to really grab me, the heroine needs to be irresistible: the moment Don José sets eyes on her, we need to see the inevitable path to his destruction. Escamillo needs to be a true alpha male, equally inevitable as the eventual victor. In the absence of these basics, Kosky’s sense of humour and an excellent orchestral performance weren’t enough to prevent this from being a long evening.

**111