This is Carmen as you've never seen it before. So often a gaudy presentation of hot-blooded passion and haughty gypsy distain, it is an altogether different take on Bizet and Mérimée's tale of thwarted love and bitter betrayal.
Barrie Kosky breaks from convention on the upbeat by illuminating the golden proscenium of the Royal Opera House stage as the overture begins. He seems to be framing a morality tale, and one that could be set anywhere at any time. He tells the story by turning the often dialogue into a spoken, disembodied narrative that echoes around the auditorium like a bedtime story for us all. It's an ingenious way to rid the drama of its leaden dialogue, but it does arrest the breakneck action.
The entire drama takes place on a gigantic walk-down staircase that fills the stage in Katrin Lea Tag's design, beautifully lit by Joachim Klein. On to this precipitous platform tumbles the cast, led by the Royal Opera's wonderfully adaptable chorus, made to sing, dance, laugh, jostle and sleep on the rising steps that represent everything from a cigarette factory to a chilly mountainside to bullring. Those who saw Kosky's Saul at Glyndebourne in 2015 (to be revived this season) or his astonishing, all-singing, all-dancing production of Shostakovich’s The Nose (a highlight of Covent Garden's last season) will know that he makes huge demands on the chorus, and here they rise to the occasion again, cantering up and down the steps like mountain goats.
But the most winning trick in this Carmen is the choreography of Otto Pichler. He runs the gamut of dance styles, from Pina Bausch to Bob Fosse, from the charleston to Motown, via jitterbugging and hand-jiving. He has Carmen herself, the gloriously ruby-toned Russian mezzo Anna Goryachova (making her Real Opera debut), dance her socks off alongside her BFF's Frasquita (Jacquelyn Stucker) and Mercédés (Aigul Akhmetshina) who are surprisingly skirt-swishy for such a radical production.
Goryachova gives a superb performance, embodying the she-cat Carmen with her flashing eyes and fearsome claws, ready to strike at anyone who stands in her way as she morphs from a souvenir matador doll through a history of dresses in the monochrome and sepia signature of Tag's costumes. If you love her, you are playing with fire: if you don’t love her, she's more dangerous still.
Kosky restores music seldom heard for this double-cast production, drawing on a new edition of Carmen prepared by Michael Rot. This includes a long, opening cabaret turn by Morales, rising star Gyula Nagy carrying off this really demanding warm-up act with aplomb.
Some coarseness in the voice of Francesco Meli as Don José, the stolid soldier who risks all, including the love of gentle Micaëla who is ravishingly sung by Kristina Mkhitaryan. This only heightens the allure of flashy toreador Escamillo (Kostas Smoriginas, in rockstar mode).
Occasionally ragged orchestral playing under conductor Jakub Hrusa on opening night was at odds with the cast's surefooted performance but this is a Carmen that offers so much, not least some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments – something an audience hardly expects from such a dark tale.
Carmen is sung in French with English surtitles. The opera is relayed live to cinemas across London on 6 March 6PM: click here for more details. It is also broadcast on Radio 3 on 21 April
|What||Bizet's Carmen review , Royal Opera House|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
06 Feb 18 – 16 Mar 18, 12 performances, one at 12PM
|Price||£8 - £195|
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|