So should one really relish an evening of Bizet's hugely popular opera? For, in its closing bars, jealous José feels the knife in his hand, and Carmen is no more.
The difference, of course, is all in the music. Whereas the catchy, swaying melody of Delilah runs unaltered from start to finish, Georges Bizet's music evolves from its bracing overture, with mournful hints of what's to come, through flirtation, brief love, and fatal jealousy. The journey takes a scenic route, via clubbing, smuggling and the excitement of the bullring. By the time of Don José's terrible act, the music expresses fear and violence. No one fancies singing along to Carmen's last breaths.
Ginger Costa-Jackson is bewitching in the title role of Carmen. Photo: Adiam Yemane
In the revival of Calixto Bieto's solid and colourful production of Carmen, those last breaths come from the thrilling mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson in a performance that brought the house down.
Worth mentioning, at this point, that one in seven in the audience at this full house was under 21, thanks to English National Opera's free – yes, totally free – tickets scheme. Many others, with bargain seats for their age group, were under 35. This was not an audience of opera old-hands, but whooping newcomers, and the effect of this highly dramatic production on them was electrifying. (ENO, remember, was to have been expelled from London by Arts Council England, but is currently on reprieve.) Clearly the artists were picking up on this youthful vibe, as the first night grew in strength and confidence with each of its three acts.
The outstanding chorus, joined by vivacious actors, people not the 19th-century Spain of Prosper Merimée's original story, on which Bizet based his opera, but of Franco's mid-20th-century bullying regime. Gaudy clothing and defiance in the streets only thinly mask terror.
Carrie-Ann Williams makes her ENO debut as Micaëla. Photo: Adiam Yemane
Brutalised people lash out at weaker ones, with a viciousness that we recognise from other news reports. Women are treated as sex objects by overbearing men. (That young audience knows all about Andrew Tate.)
Italian-American Costa-Jackson seems born to play the title role, with her catlike movement, and a voice that rises proudly and dips into hollowed, earthy rawness. She has already performed the role in many US houses, but in London meets Sean Panikkar as her José, the soldier crazed by desire whose infatuation turns into obsession and, when Carmen falls for toreador Escamillo, murder. Tenor Panikkar reprises the role after his 2020 ENO debut as José, rapidly growing in musicality and conviction on first night.
First night saw more excitement, in the ENO debut of soprano Carrie-Ann Williams, stepping into the role of José's jilted sweetheart Micaëla, while Gemma Summerfield is unwell, and making a huge impression with her vast range of expression, impressive technique and character. We are sure to be seeing and hearing much more of this terrific new talent. She is scheduled to sing at least once more, on 4 February. Marvel, too, for Alexandra Oomens soaring soprano, as feisty Frasquita.
Nmon Ford as Escamillo and Ginger Costa-Jackson as Carmen. Photo: Adiam Yemane
Nmon Ford is a strutting Escamillo. And there is a starring role for a fleet of bashed-up old Mercedes, in Alfons Flores' clever design, with its hints at the squalor that thrives on the neglect of a nation. But it is the full-throttle chorus, as that nation's repressed people, alongside the irrepressible youngsters of London schools, and the players of the ENO orchestra, that underpin this power-packed production, conducted with spirit by Kerem Hassan. Olivia Clarke conducts on 22 Feb
In Jamie Manton's revival, this explosive Carmen seems punchier than ever. I'm still reeling.
Carmen is sung in English with English surtitles. Further performances are on 4, 9, 11, 14, 17, 20, 22 and 24 February. Click here to book
|What||Carmen, English National Opera review|
|Where||English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Embankment (underground)|
01 Feb 23 – 24 Feb 23, Nine performances, with one interval. Start times vary. Running time c2hr 45min
|Website||Click here for information and booking|