OPERA / Killing the cat: Pountney's Carmen revived

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The Independent Culture
WHO, or what, is Carmen? She is 'an eruption from civilisation into the unknown' (Theodor Adorno). Among opera's doomed heroines, she is 'the most feminist, the most stubborn' (Catherine Clement); yet 'her secret is her nonentity' (Peter Conrad). Far from being a tabula rasa, she is a lexicon of dramatic possibilities, agent or victim, free spirit or prisoner according to the temperament of singer, director, conductor, audience.

And then, what is Carmen? An opera, but an opera-comique in the specifically Parisian idiom that uses dialogue rather than recitative, and hence prepares the way for the 20th-century musical. For this third revival of David Pountney's 1986 staging of Carmen, English National Opera has decided to emphasise the link between opera-comique and the musical, most notably in its choice of conductor, Justin Brown, currently music director of Carousel at the National Theatre.

Brown signals his approach from the start: the first notes of the prelude seem to extinguish the house lights, a slightly shocking but effective device. Light and airy, the prelude's opening section promises a pacy evening; but when the mood darkens, Brown treads too delicately, underplaying the gravitas.

And so it continues through the evening. Orchestra, voices and mise-en-scene conspire to trim down the dramatic possibilities. Maria Bjornson's set locates the action in some automobile graveyard of the late 1970s. Carmen and her scurrilous cronies might be Latin American freedom fighters or Basque separatists on the run - the production is not specific. The costumes are a reach-me- down ragbag, but the combat fatigues and suspender belts (sometimes on the same character) now look less like refugee necessity, more like a post-punk fancy dress party.

David Sulkin, who directs the revival, has maintained Pountney's sense of a stage buzzing with life one moment, achingly desolate the next, but he is less successful in coaxing life from individual performers. Edmund Barham, never the most expressive of actors, has problems with the quasi-proletarian accent forced on him for the spoken dialogue. Still, his Don Jose is sweetly musical even when the tone is somewhat constricted. Cathryn Pope always has something of the frightened deer about her, as if she daren't look away from the conductor's baton for too long, and her Micaela suffers. Donald Maxwell's Escamillo is a dramatic disaster, a preening popinjay in Gary Glitter drag. If we can't take him seriously, how can Carmen?

She doesn't, apparently. Far from 'erupting from civilisation', this Carmen is whimsical, one of the girls out for a good time. All legs and mouth, Sally Burgess radiates the barely contained spitefulness of a cat about to expose its claws, and her easy, jazzy tone takes just the right amount of liberties with the score. She is a Carmen to be reckoned with, but not in this Carmen as it stands.

In rep at the Coliseum, London WC2 (071-836 3161)