Oppressive Masculinity: Bieito’s Carmen at ENO

Bizet – Carmen

Carmen – Justina Gringyte

Don José – Eric Cutler

Micaëla – Eleanor Dennis

Escamillo – Leigh Melrose

Zuniga – Graeme Danby

Frasquita – Rhian Lois

Mercédès – Clare Presland

Dancaïre – Geoffrey Dalton

Remendado – Alun Rhys-Jenkins

Moralès – George Humphreys

Chorus of English National Opera, Orchestra of English National Opera / Martin Fitzpatrick.

Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

English National Opera, Coliseum, London.  Tuesday, June 16th, 2015.

Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen has already been seen in a number of theatres from Oslo to Florence and will soon be staged in San Francisco.  ENO first presented it in 2012 and for its first revival there directed by Joan Anton Rechi they have gathered an impressive cast.  I saw it back in 2010 at the Liceu where it struck me as theatrical dynamite – a thrilling evening that stayed with me for a long time afterwards.

Eric Cutler & Justina Gringyte in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir
Eric Cutler & Justina Gringyte in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir

Essentially, Bieito sees this as a tale of oppressive masculinity.  In a military garrison perhaps in Ceuta or Melilla, far from urban reality, this is a society ruled by masculine force where soldiers are humiliated ritually and women are seen as objects.  The constant threat of violence is a menacing one with the violence seen as a symptom of militarization.  Escamillo, rather being seen as the hyper-masculine torero, is here an urbane man in a suit, his celebrity sophistication contrasted with the earthiness of the soldiers.  Consequently, José is seen as someone who cannot control his temper from the very start, unable to rationalize his feelings for Carmen and by wishing to control her can only end their relationship through the ultimate act of violence.  Carmen on the other hand, rather than being a siren with magnetic attraction, is seen more as an opportunist, who sees in José an opportunity to move on from her current life.  When it fails, she moves on to the next man.  Yet in this staging not all the men are evil.  The most poignant moment comes from a naked soldier – disrobing himself of his uniform and everything associated with it, Bieito demonstrates that there is an inherent handsomeness to the male form that is fundamentally beautiful, it’s only society that turned the soldiers into brutes.

Eleanor Dennis & Eric Cutler in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir
Eleanor Dennis & Eric Cutler in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir

Naturally, all of the characters are flesh and blood beings and are sketched out marvellously right down to every single member of the chorus.  One of the most striking moments is the start of Act 4, where Bieito splendidly catches the enthusiasm of the gathered crowd, the movements on stage matching precisely with the movements of the score.  At the very end Carmen and José’s confrontation takes place within what appears to be a bullring, José giving into his animal instincts finally.

Chorus of English National opera in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir
Chorus of English National opera in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir

The cast gave everything they had both dramatically and vocally to this production. Their dedication was unquestionable.  Justina Gringyte’s Carmen was sung in a brassy mezzo that carried well.  It didn’t quite open up thrillingly at the top in ‘libre elle est née et libre elle mourra’ but her physical and vocal commitment were truly remarkable.  The bottom of the voice was striking in the card scene and with time Gringyte will find even more colours to exploit in the voice.  A notable assumption from a very promising singer.

Clare Presland, Rhian Lois, Justina Gringyte & the Chorus of English National Opera in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir
Clare Presland, Rhian Lois, Justina Gringyte & the Chorus of English National Opera in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir

Eric Cuter was a superb José.  Remarkable to think how the voice has developed since I first came across him as a wonderfully lyrical Iopas in València six years ago.  He sang the flower song with beauty and sensitivity and a splendid and perfectly controlled diminuendo.  He also charted José’s disintegration with great immediacy – it was harrowing to watch.  I would very much like to hear him sing the role in French.

Rhian Lois, Justina Gringyte & Clare Presland in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir
Rhian Lois, Justina Gringyte & Clare Presland in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir

The remaining roles were decently sung.  Eleanor Dennis’ Micaëla revealed a lyric soprano of a good size and creaminess.  There’s a slight chalkiness at the very top but she is still very young.  Leigh Melrose’ Escamillo was perfectly serviceable.  There was some shrillness in the smaller roles but otherwise the cast acquitted themselves well.  There was a real sense of ensemble that was completely put to the service of the staging and the work.  It was sung in a musical translation by Christopher Cowell which was much better than of some the translations heard recently at this address.  I did however miss the colour and sound of the original.

Justina Gringyte & Chorus of English National Opera in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir
Justina Gringyte & Chorus of English National Opera in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir

The ENO Chorus was on great form, nailing that Act 3, scene 2 chorus with wonderful amplitude and it looked like they were having a wonderful time.  They were joined by a superbly-trained children’s chorus.  The orchestra played very well bringing out the multicoloured wonder of Bizet’s score.  Martin Fitzpatrick, ENO’s Head of Music, led the performance – he is sharing conducting duties with Richard Armstrong.  I found that pacing tended to drag so that what was happening in the pit did not quite match the drama of what was happening on stage.  There is an undeniable energy in the production that didn’t quite find its reflection in the musical direction despite the fact that the singers, particularly Gringyte and Cutler, were throwing themselves with complete abandon into their roles.  Perhaps it was just a Tuesday night feeling but the quality of the orchestral playing was certainly there.

Justina Gringyte & Eric Cutler in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir
Justina Gringyte & Eric Cutler in Carmen at ENO © Alastair Muir

This is a superb production and it is clear why so many houses have taken it on.  It is a visceral and powerful piece of music theatre here given with extreme dedication by a fearless group of singer-actors.  The work of a theatrical genius, the forces tonight gave it all they had.

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7 comments

  1. Whilst watching, I thought of you when Mr Cutler came onstage (so to speak…) I betted you had heard him already (highly likely and it proves true) but perhaps not in this role. And in addition, we thought alike, due to this master’s insights. I wrote on my notes but not on my review, of the ‘absurdities of masculinity’.) CB highlights this without remorse, and not just here.

    I see CB is doing a Tannhauser in Oct. It may be worth the trip.

    • Ah yes, I keep forgetting to add that to my wishlist. October is very busy but I might go out of my way to see it. Are you going to Toulouse or Belfast for Turandot?

      • Not for Toulouse but Belfast might be easier and cheaper when it arrives. I was mentally comparing Alden’s attempts to jazz up Queen of Spades to this fabulous Carmen, both attempt to address the meat of their opera’s concerns but only CB succeeds. Alden almost seemed to treat his subject with contempt. One always knows that for all his productions shocks and surprises, Bieito respects the subject and the work. He is a master with more: real artistic integrity.

      • That’s it – everything he does is based in the text even if it’s not a conventional reading. Was disappointed with Alden’s Otello so chose not to go to QoS.
        I’m definitely aiming to get to Belfast – ticket sales are already open.

      • Thanks for the heads up, such was the lack of dates or even likely year it’d be seen when it was announced that I totally forgot about it. I see also that Fidelio is returning to Munich. It might tempt me to go.

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