In moving Bizet's sun-soaked opera forward from the 1830s of Prosper Merimée's original novella to the 1970s dog days of the rule over Spain of dictator Franco, Bieito takes a risk. He strips out the inbuilt exuberance that rattles through the much-loved score, and while the undercurrent of abuse is believable, there is a joylessness that saps the soul.
This Carmen is a rare thing, a production that is less than the sum of its parts. A breathtaking central performance with august supporting roles, ravishing lighting, lickety-split conducting, a chorus working its socks – and many other garments – off ... they are all here, but the production leaves a puzzlingly bad taste in the mouth.
Nardus Williams (Micaëla) and Sean Panikkar (Don José), new faces at ENO. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
In the end, it's probably about the lack of contrast. The shock of the last scene loses currency when so much that has gone before has been in the same, sadistic vein.
But nothing can take away from the force of nature that is Lithuanian mezzo-soprano Justina Gringytė's Carmen, a reprise of the singer's 2015 triumph as a sensuous wildcat. Rich-voiced, this Iberian lynx in human form leaves mere mortal men floundering. Among them, the straight-laced soldier Don José, sung here by the American tenor Sean Panikkar as a baffled man, deranged by uninvited love, out of his depth.
Don José should be marrying nice Micaëla, sung by Nardus Williams, who appears later this season as the Countess in the new production of The Marriage of Figaro. Like all the female characters in this production, she is abused and humiliated beyond endurance. Whatever happened to the cheeky flirtation?
Ellie Laugherne's devil-may-care Frasquita. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
When baritone Ashley Riches Escamillo, Carmen's on-off lover, dons the full toreador gear he transforms from shambling passer-by to strutting hero, but on first night he was occasionally overpowered by chorus and orchestra. Soprano Ellie Laugharne turns in a fantastic performance as ditsy moll Frasquita, with Samantha Price equally game and crystal-voiced as friend Mercédès. Alex Otterburn is at his oily best as a manipulative sergeant, but there is something unwholesome about Keel Watson's overbearing Zuniga.
The young Italian conductor Valentina Peleggi directing an orchestra that sounded a little under par had the lively chorus of English National Opera as compensation, and the really excellent Children's Chorus that was thoughtlessly lost behind the big boys on entry. Peleggi is attached to the company as an ENO Mackerras Fellow and is one to watch.
Martin Doone revives Bruno Poet's expressive lighting, Jamie Manton is the revival director. For all its shortcomings, this Carmen is destined to stick around in the ENO larder. It may yet mature with a big pinch of the seasoning that seldom fails: less is more.
Carmen is sung in English, with English surtitles. Evening performances are on 1, 6, 1, 14, 20, 22, 25, and 27 Feb, with a 2pm matinee, Sat 8 Feb. The production is suitable for children over 11. There is a pre-performance talk on 11 Feb (£5). It is a joint production with Den Norske Opera and Ballet, the Norwegian company based in Oslo
|What||Carmen, English National Opera review|
|Where||English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Charing Cross (underground)|
29 Jan 20 – 27 Feb 20, 10 performances, times vary
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|