Carmen, Coliseum, London


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Calixto Bieito’s productions always project a frisson in advance, but the auguries surrounding the arrival in London of his 13-year-old ‘Carmen’ – seen and praised all over Europe – were of a gentler nature.

He let it be known that he’d been inspired by the sight of some beaten-up old Mercs on the Spanish-Moroccan border, and that his gypsies would be smuggling plasma TVs.

He had set his drama in Seventies Spain, but would not discourage us from drawing parallels with today’s crumbling Spanish economy; there would be overtones of state corruption and social dislocation.

The curtain rises on a parade-ground with a phone kiosk to one side and a flagpole in the middle. A safari-suited gent lurches across the stage and does a pretend conjuring trick: an obscure point is being made here, with some more obvious points following, as a resolutely thuggish Morales (Duncan Rock) physically abuses his squaddies.

On comes Micaela but - as incarnated by Elizabeth Llewellyn - this is not Bizet’s simple country girl: this Micaela can handle anything, even twenty soldiers trying to rape her. The cigarette girls emerge from the factory, and stoically endure the taunts of the squaddies led by a swaggering Zuniga (Graeme Danby); when the spotlight moves to the kiosk it proves to be containing Carmen, who - as played by the formidable Ruxandra Donose - turns out to be a full-time whore.

But as she contemptuously shrugs off rutting soldiers and clocks her Don Jose (Adam Diegel), we are suddenly plunged into real drama, with Diegel’s ringing tenor rising to the challenge of Donose’s sumptuous contralto; this pair go on to maintain a convincing and moving fight to the death. 

Other things are more problematic in this strenuously ‘conceptual’ production. Leigh Melrose’s Escamillo is given a scenario which doesn’t stack up, and Llewellyn’s radiant singing is undermined by her implausible personality-change; the smugglers look and act like chavs on a Club 18-30 binge, while the street-kids are simply tiresome, as are the omnipresent Mercs; a nude male dancer does a tasteful number (why?) in clouds of dry ice; the heavily-pruned drama fires only fitfully.

Musical disappointments include the Act Two quintet and the playing-card trio (where clumsy direction precludes the requisite needle-sharp intonation), but Ryan Wigglesworth extracts exhilarating sounds from both orchestra and chorus. Different? Yes, but also rather dated.