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by on 30 January 2020

Taking the Bull by the Horns


by Georges Bizet, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 27th February

Review by Nick Swyft

The cover of the programme for ENO’s revival of Calixto Bieito’s 2012 Carmen presents the sultry image of an angry dark-haired beauty. This is probably how most people see the character of Carmen. Arguably this is mis-selling, since the title role is played by Justina Gringytė, the Lithuanian mezzo-soprano, who is unashamedly blonde.


The running time for this opera has been advertised by other companies to be around three and a quarter hours. Valentina Peleggi, conducting, opened with the overture at a cracking pace, and although the rest of the music didn’t seem rushed, we were still out of the theatre in two and three quarter hours. This is great for catching the last train, but was symptomatic of a fast paced modern world that doesn’t suit the atmosphere Carmen was always supposed to generate.


Indeed one messes with the basic production of Carmen at one’s peril. The main focus should be on the four central protagonists. How those roles are interpreted is the core of any performance, not the set. It seemed pointless, for example, to make Lillas Pastia’s bar a Mercedes car, which only served to distract.

Carmen10As for Carmen herself, the passion that Justina Gringytė has clearly brought to the role in the past, was missing here. This may have been first night nerves, but the famous arias that send shivers down the spine in other productions, seemed disappointingly lifeless. Her lover Don Jose (Sean Pannikar) and the bullfighter Escamillo (Ashley Riches) were very strong as the jealous lovers, but like real lovers they needed more from Carmen herself. Don Jose’s fiancée Micaëla (Nardus Williams) lacked definition. Was she the wronged ‘wife’, or was she there simply as the agent of Don Jose’s mother? There was no real outrage that he was carrying on with Carmen, and not her.


The show was stolen by the performance of the young girl (either Selma Benjelloun or Sofia Pang) with her short dance at the beginning of Act Two. Subsequently she flitted among the drunken adults like a restraining fairy, bringing a welcome innocent contrast to their behaviour, despite constantly being chivvied away by Carmen’s friend Mercédès (Samantha Price).


The interplay and performances of Mercédès and Frasquita (Ellie Laugharne) worked very well, providing a good basis for the wild gypsy atmosphere, which did come across well.

The primal sexual tensions of a culture centred around bull-fighting always make for a fun performance. This is why Carmen has remained popular over the years, despite societal disapproval of such things. This exists now as much as at its debut in 1870, albeit from a different perspective.

Nick Swyft
January 2020

Photography by Richard Hubert Smith

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