All-singing, all-dancing: Carmen at the Royal Opera House

Bizet – Carmen

Carmen – Anna Goryachova
Don José – Francesco Meli
Micaëla – Kristina Mkhitaryan
Escamillo – Kostas Smoriginas
Frasquita – Jacquelyn Stucker
Mercédès – Aigul Akhmetshina
Moralès – Gyula Nagy
Le Dancaïre – Pierre Doyen
Remendado – Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Zuniga – David Soar

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Jakub Hrůša.
Stage director – Barrie Kosky

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Tuesday, February 7th, 2018.

Tonight marked the premiere of Barrie Kosky’s Carmen at the Royal Opera House.  The production had previously been seen at the Oper Frankfurt in 2016.  It is as far removed from the Royal Opera’s previous staging (by Francesca Zambello) as one could imagine.  Instead of a stage crowded with extras sourced from the population of London Zoo; here, the only set is a staircase that spans both the height and width of the proscenium.  Within it, Kosky creates some fascinating visuals – the train of Carmen’s dress running down the stairs or the constant use of dancers and the chorus to provide visual stimulus.  Dance routines using all the forces of the company – chorus, principals and ballet – seem to have been minutely choreographed and extremely busy, the energy produced is staggering.  Having spent the entire evening climbing and descending steps as well as busting some fierce moves, the entire company must have calves of steel.

Photo: © ROH / Bill Cooper

Yet this focus on the dance element, while not disloyal to the work’s origins as an opéra comique, disguises an almost total lack of personality within the principal characters.  There is little to care about here.  We barely get a sense of who Carmen is, her journey, nor indeed do we see José’s development from uptight solider to homicidal brute.  Rather than perform the dialogue in whole or cut, Kosky has an unseen lady narrator (la voix de Carmen, apparently) deliver stage instructions or a brief précis with the languor of someone who took a few sleeping pills and is about to drop off.   This had a catastrophic effect on the pace, making a long evening feel even longer.  Additionally, given the poor sightlines from many parts of the house, Kosky places significant amounts of the action at the extremities of the stage, meaning that a number of audience members missed the big twist at the end (I did, but that was mainly because I had the world’s tallest man in front of me).  Furthermore, with action taking place at the top the stairs above where the surtitle screen was, there is a good chance that audience members higher up also missed a fair bit, particularly Carmen’s entry in a gorilla suit.

The evening felt especially long as a number of cuts made by Bizet before the premiere were opened out, including a different entrance aria for Carmen (here performed in addition to the habanera) and more subdued closing pages.  I appreciated having the chance to hear them, but combined with the languid narration, lack of character development and Jakub Hrůša’s in places laid-back conducting, it felt interminable.  Hrůša started well, the overture brimming with energy and the faster numbers had undeniable spirit.  The problem was the slower music dragged – the card scene lost all sense of tension and Micaëla’s aria also seemed to grind to a halt.  The electric energy that should make the final scene so memorable felt missing.  The orchestra had an OK night – some of the brass clearly disagreed on what notes they should be playing and some of the string intonation was sour.  Generally however, it was one of that orchestra’s better evenings.

Photo: © ROH / Bill Cooper

The impression of anonymity in the cast was also exemplified by the foggy diction in many of the cast.  I imagine it was first night nerves that led to the poor intonation in the two leads.  Anna Goryachova most definitely has a fine instrument and is a fabulous dancer.  She moved across the stage tirelessly and threw herself into everything asked of her.  The bottom is rich and full but intonation in the middle and top was sadly not reliable and she failed to exploit the words in the way that one would hope.  She deserves our admiration for her unstinting performance but tonight did not show her at her best.  Francesco Meli belonged to the wannabe Vickers school of Don Josés.  He had clearly worked on the text and sang with generous force.  Unfortunately the top was raw and vibrations loose.  His flower song was less an expression of blooming love and more a case of wanting to get to the end – the diminuendo on the high B-flat not even attempted.

Photo: © ROH / Bill Cooper

Kristina Mkhitaryan was a very pleasant Micaëla.  The voice has a pearly beauty and a good line, although the touch of hardness in the tone on top suggested that the role takes her beyond her current limits.  She is however, a notable talent.  Kostas Smoriginas coped admirably with Escamillo’s awkward tessitura but I did wish that he had coloured the tone more.  The supporting cast benefitted from Jean-Paul Fouchécourt and Pierre Doyen as the Remendado and Dancaïre, both with immaculate diction and Fouchécourt in particular with lots of character in his sappy tenor.  The Royal Opera Chorus once again demonstrated the remarkable improvement of standards under their new director William Spaulding.  Tuning was much improved and blend (apart from a couple of still penetrating vibratos) almost unrecognizable from previously.  They were absolutely tireless and completely disciplined in everything asked of them – jumping around, climbing up and down the stairs, moving in formation.  They unquestionably deserved their post-premiere champagne.

Photo: © ROH / Bill Cooper

This was a mixed evening.  Musically there were some good elements but on the whole it was let down by patchy intonation both in the principals and in the orchestra, as well as foggy diction.  Dramatically, I was even less convinced.  Kosky had clearly spent a lot of time choreographing the dance routines but this was done to the detriment of building a cogent theatrical narrative.  It made me reflect on the difference between this and Bieito’s recent Gezeichneten.  In the latter, the audience is forced to think and to confront themselves.  Here, it felt to me almost as if Kosky didn’t want us to think because in doing so, one would realize that we barely got a sense of who these characters are and worse, barely care about them.  What he does give us is a good show and in that respect, I think many in the audience appreciated it.

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