Since its disastrous premiere, Carmen has been such a success that there have been as many manifestations as there are art forms to hang it on. The one factor that both helps and hinders a director with an agenda – be it in cinema, dance, politics, theatre, not to mention opera – is that Bizet’s masterpiece carries all before it, endowed with a freakish power to absorb and project anything to do with story, motive, character and atmosphere.
The latest contender to throw a hat into the Seville bullring is Barrie Kosky, the Komische Oper Berlin supremo since 2012 who has been making waves with productions including Shostakovich’s The Nose (for Covent Garden), Handel’s Saul (for Glyndebourne) and Bayreuth’s new Meistersinger. A particular selling point of this Carmen (first seen in Frankfurt in 2016) is the new edition of the score by Michael Rot, which has reclaimed a lot of material that never made it beyond rehearsal. There is also a narrative (declaimed by the heavily amplified, unseen voice/ghost of Carmen), instead of spoken dialogue or recitative (not composed by Bizet). This relating duplicates much of what is in the music and, apart from putting the brakes on momentum, also distances the singers from their characters.
Kosky, in fact, has made distancing a key point of his staging, which dispenses with any scenery or props apart from a grand, stage-wide staircase and leaves anything to do with Spanish-ness to the costumes. He goes further by presenting Carmen the opera as a cabaret-style revue, beefed up by much incredibly busy, high-camp-on-the-cusp-of-facetious dance, performed with meticulous élan by the well-drilled chorus and a small group of hoofers playing saucy soldiers and even saucier bullfighters.
It’s vaudeville filtered through a very Germanic theatre of the absurd, in thrall to the cult of ‘director’s theatre’ at its most invincible. Carmen makes her grand entrance doing a striptease out of a gorilla suit, presumably to bring out the wild ape in all of us, and Kosky moulds her as his vision of an alpha-female, narcissistic predator, elements that are already there for the taking without any further directorial exaggeration. Similarly, Micaëla is like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Faust’s redeeming Marguerite as she tries to control her jittery teenage hormones; and the scene in which Don José ties Carmen’s hands to take her to jail became a ripe slice of bondage sport.
Yet, for all Kosky’s panache, there are many times when you have to adjust to the lurches between his arch, over-the-top stylisations and Bizet’s simpler, admittedly schematic, more truthful exposé of the character of Carmen, rather than her as an over-fetishised archetype. Her scene with Don José at the end of Act Two and virtually the whole of the second part (Act Three/scenes one and two, rather than Acts Three and Four) sits very uneasily next to the Kosky brand, to the extent that his closing gesture seems merely trite – I’d have booed if I could be bothered.
It’s magnificent that the music sails through all the distraction. The alluring, petite – and this is a staging that demands a bit of a looker in the title role – Anna Goryachova’s sumptuous mezzo and mocking reserve single her out as a formidable outsider, and she deals elegantly with directorial demands. Francesco Meli is marvellous as Don José, his performance so powerful as to make the opera frequently seem more about him than Carmen. Kristina Mkhitaryan brings a welcome stillness to Micaëla’s Act Three music, and Kostas Smoriginas is a smouldering, god’s-gift Escamillo, impressively taking on the convulsively staged bullring crowds of Act Four.
Jakub Hrůša, at last making his Royal Opera debut, goes to the core of Bizet’s wonderful, ‘new’ but familiar, score with as much colour, weight and feeling as you could want, and the Orchestra plays beautifully for him. There is much whooping and shrieking at the end, and it is a terrific show – one, oddly, that rather buries its heroine.
- Eleven further performances until March 16
- Royal Opera House www.roh.org.uk
- Shown in cinemas on March 3
- Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday March 10 at 6.30 p.m.