For every Death in Venice or Jenufa, English National Opera needs core repertoire that works artistically and commercially, for cognoscenti and virgins alike. So why give Carmen to a film-maker with no experience of staging opera? Like the Dublin-set La Traviata, Sally Potter's Carmen raises questions about ENO's priorities. Of the recent projects with similarly high-profile debutantes, only Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly has been commercially successful. Yet the trend continues, with season after season cast in the mould of a middlebrow Celebrity Big Brother.
Blaming previous managements is impossible here. Carmen was commissioned by the current artistic director, John Berry, whose blogs on the ENO website, together with those of Potter, indicate close involvement throughout its development. Including, one imagines, the engagement of an Alsatian dog for the Act III intermezzo. Were Richard Jones to use an Alsatian in Carmen, he'd probably stage a police-dog training display, with flaming hoops and the ritual mauling of a criminal. In Potter's feeble caprice the dog walks across the stage and back, in the company of one, then two, then three, four, five security guards, none of whom appears to have benefited from the three choreographers credited in the programme. Meanwhile, Bizet's balmy nocturne unfolds slowly, delicately, Englishly, in the hands of conductor Edward Gardner.
The security guards are replacements for Bizet's soldiers and manifestations of Potter's conceit on surveillance culture. In Act I, CCTV footage of the foyer is projected across the gauze that separates the stage from the pit and auditorium until the face of Carmen (Alice Coote) appears, gazing expressionlessly into the lens. It's a bold image that quickly misfires. Small when she appears in person, modestly dressed by comparison with the prostitutes that replace Bizet's factory girls, less assertive than the menacing children in First Communion clothes, Coote is made to seem even smaller during the "Habanera" by the male dancers that are the Pips to her Gladys Knight. Small too are her gestures. Flaring one's nostrils may win Academy Awards, but it doesn't project sensuality, fatalism or independence of spirit across a large theatre.
Directing Coote as though for camera is the first of many mistakes. I could swallow the anomalies and illogicalities of a Carmen set mostly in England – Act IV sees the smugglers arrive in Spain and complain about the heat – were the stagecraft competent. But how to explain the Eurovision Song Contest routine in the Act II quintet? Attractive as the dancing is, both tango and hip-hop, the score affords few opportunities for more than incidental colour. When Carmen says she is going to dance, she doesn't; hence Don José (Julian Gavin) breaks off to read a text message. And when she reads the cards that foretell her death, she is standing in a covered walkway, her face barely visible.
It may be Dover. It may be Sangatte. It is certainly a long way from the stalls, and a long way from the orchestra pit, where the worst effects of Potter's production are felt. Sans dialogue, the score lacks momentum and purpose. Gavin injects fretful passion, while Coote sculpts her phrases as though in a recording studio. Lacking conventional cues, Gardner seems perplexed by Bizet's penchant for expressing strong emotions in light strokes and light emotions in strong strokes. Though finely played, it does not sound French in the slightest, much less Spanish. And how shocking to hear a work that has survived transposition to Soweto and Broadway come unstuck in an opera house.
'Carmen' is at the Coliseum (0870 145 0200) until 23 NovemberReuse content