At its premiere last winter Barrie Kosky’s Carmen came as a shock. He’d taken liberties with both text and music, reshaping the opera’s contours, and added a coda which put a dramatically different complexion on everything which had gone before. The staging was pure West End musical.
Now it’s in revival we can judge it more coolly, but in my case no more kindly. I won’t give away the secret of the ironical coda, except to say that it distances the work to a point where we skip out of the theatre with no emotional residue of any kind. But if it’s dance you want, this is the show for you. Revival direction by Alan Barnes and Madeline Ferricks-Rosevear, with conducting by Keri-Lynn Wilson, gives the whole thing wonderful smack and tickle. Dance is at its core, and it’s done brilliantly.
Kosky is determined we shall experience the opera not as a piece of fake-Spanish exoticism, but as a sophisticated product of Offenbach’s Paris. And he’s stripped the stage absolutely bare, apart from a giant staircase, signalling the Busby Berkeley manoeuvres which will materialise on it. The huge chorus – plus an additional children’s chorus – move as adroitly as they sing.
Kosky’s replacement of the recitatives and dialogue with a husky voiceover narration adds to the emotional distancing, and his minor characters – notably Zuniga and Morales – are mere ciphers. His Escamillo, now sung by the Russian baritone Alexander Vinogradov, is cautious and charisma free – no flash and swagger at all. On the other hand, we get a forceful and beautifully sung Micaela in Eleonora Buratto, and in Brian Jagde a movingly-portrayed Don Jose.
Carmen makes her first appearance as an androgynous toreador who strides round the stage while the voiceover delineates the conventional male requirements for female beauty. Her second appearance – in an ape’s costume – may hark back to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, but has no evident point here. Kosky told me in an interview that in his view Carmen is a chameleon: “She’s lots of different things, jealous, vindictive, an adorable little girl, with a dash of Edith Piaf. She needs to remain a mystery. What I don’t like is the portrayal of her as a sultry, brooding, gypsy witch. She’s a snake charmer, and her music is deliciously erotic. And she wants to self-destruct, to meet her death.”
And this is exactly how the French mezzo Gaelle Arquez plays her. This Carmen has beauty and dignity in voice and manner, and at every moment she commands the stage. Occasionally her singing is a shade below the note, but in the big duets her pure sound blends perfectly with Jagde’s spinto tenor.
Until 19 December at the Royal Opera House
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