Free your mind of every picture-postcard image of Bizet's Carmen. The only mantillas you'll see in Sally Potter's extraordinary staging are those worn by the drag queens selling merchandise at the opera's climactic bullfight. Free your mind, free your spirit – as our heroine tries so desperately to do – because this is a Carmen for the here and now, where freedom is for the imagination, and escaping the scrutiny of state and CCTV is for dreamers.
ENO's music director Edward Gardner doesn't wait for the applause to die before hurtling us into Bizet's festive prelude – but there's nothing festive or picturesque about what lies behind designer Es Devlin's plain white scrim. That it resembles a movie screen is only fitting in the circumstances. Potter is in a sense shooting the movie in Carmen's mind, and as Bizet's "fate motif" is heard in the orchestra the first indelible image is of a sepia-lit yard at the scrag-end of some urban concrete jungle.
Telegraph wires catch the fading light overhead and faceless figures lurk in the shadows. The chap we'll come to know as Don Jose, a security guard, is checking the footage from CCTV cameras and, to the jaunty accompaniment of the familiar "Toreador Song", a series of grainy images offer us his viewpoint.
But then something startling happens: a swarthy dancer in a sparkly suit materialises from nowhere and seems to be urging our anti-hero-in-waiting to live a little dangerously and embrace his destiny. A woman, beautiful and seductive, now joins him and so begins their dance of death.
Potter's big metaphor for her Carmen is civil liberty under threat. She and her designer use the scrim to superimpose the jerky CCTV images over actuality. Surveillance is the new reality. Carmen's entrance is pre-empted by her grainy monochrome image blown up to fill the entire screen. She pouts knowingly for the camera, as if to say: "I know you're watching."
Knowing is her first line of resistance. She's almost a freedom fighter for independence. Her red dress, as yet the only colour on the stage, singles her out as a leader. The other women form a guard of honour as she enters, they pointedly turn their backs when she gives Jose the fateful flower, and in a wonderfully surreal image her "escape" from custody sees her lifted out of the confusion like a bird soaring for the open sky.
One aspect of Potter's staging that contributes greatly to its super-charged intensity is the decision to lose all the dialogue. The sheer physicality of what Potter and her team achieve here creates a literally unspoken drama of its own. Christopher Cowell's new English translation even makes a joke of it: "I haven't said a word," quips Carmen. "I may sing a couple."
Some are going to find Potter's treatment too cool for comfort. It's a production full of "frozen" moments – like the predatory stillness that characterises the second act bar scene. But that's the point. The show's passion is the dangerous kind that simmers just beneath the surface. Alice Coote's sometimes strangely indolent Carmen shades all her solos so languorously it's like she's craving intimacy with each and every one of us. Her presence is brave and mysterious – a pointed contrast to Katie Van Kooten's big, open-voiced Micaela. She is the acceptable face of conformity.
The dance of death (as thrillingly realised by Lucila Cionci and Pablo Veron) achieves its apotheosis in the final act. But the camera in Potter's imagination is trained now on an empty stage. Julian Gavin's terrific Jose goes for broke with his final disintegration. Coote's Carmen is at first almost humane in her pity for him. It's scarily truthful. And while Big Brother is probably still watching, it is we who cannot avert our eyes. And that is – as it should be – uncomfortable.
In rep to 23 November (0870 145 0200)Reuse content