Carmen possesses one of the best known scores in all of opera, but Calixto Bieito’s gritty version successfully defamiliarises it. Bieito has transported Carmen to the dusty and derelict borderlands of 1970s Spain. The production seems unsure as to whether we are in the dying days of Franco’s regime or in the first tentative days of democracy but this is certainly not the image of Spain that the General would have wanted. Bieito’s Carmen is a traveller, propelled from one man to the next by a dusty silver car – and the production is not just about the grip of a lover but that of the state.
It opens with a semi clad soldier pounding around a flag-pole in a circle of exhaustion that soon sees him collapse (a symbol of oppression that is delicately counterpointed by the freedom of a naked man dancing on gypsy land which opens the third act). Behind the flag-pole, rows of soldiers underpin this opening image of control. A whistle goes and they swarm around the girls that join them. Out of this playground game, this kiss-chase, steps Ruxandra Donose’s Carmen and for each of these men the world stops.
Donose shakes her dirty blond hair and slinks around the stage with a sexual charisma that ripples through the auditorium. Air suddenly seems in very short supply. Her initial number is fiendishly difficult and her effort to retain control is perhaps a little too clear. But this is the last time she appears restricted and her darkly inviting messo-soprano has us hanging on each note in no time. She is sultry but with an edginess that makes images of Debbie Harry impossible to shake. But though at times vulgar she does not appear cruel and while Carmen’s capriciousness is explored, her selfishness is never really touched upon.
As Don José – the soldier who falls for her only to kill her – Adam Diegel is all simple masculinity. His straightforwardness is echoed in his vocal performance until he too warms into the passionate and deadly final duet between the two. At this point the insanity that has driven him is palpable in the trembling desperation of his voice.
Rising star Elizabeth Llewellyn brings a no nonsense purity to the angelic – and let’s be honest slightly annoying – role of Micaëla, Jose’s jilted fiancé. She’s gutsier than Micaëla usually gets to be, for once making a noble opponent to Donose’s temptress and not just his mother’s mouthpiece.
Bieito moves the chorus around the stage with bravura and architectural skill, creating a human landscape on Alfons Flores’ mighty but sparse set. Ryan Wigglesworth conducts with the pace and clarity of a castanet, displaying a light virtuosity. And although Christopher Cowell’s translation of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s libretto stutters in the spoken moments, for the rest his simple script enables the melodies of Bizet’s original to steal into the limelight.