The return of Calixto Bieto to the Coliseum is a rather interesting phenomenon. His previous appearances there appeared at the time to contribute to the regrettable sacking of Nicholas Payne. The second of those two appearances, his production of Verdi's A Masked Ball was however the only production of his I've seen which I thought really worked. I also saw several others during the McMaster era in Edinburgh including a very boring version of a Spanish play by the name of Celestina and an unsuccessful relocation of Hamlet to the Palace nightclub. So I bought a ticket for this one mainly because I have developed a certain academic interest in watching the on-going saga of the Berry years.
It also has to be said that to wow me with this particular opera faced other challenges. It isn't a score I'm particularly keen on (this is the first time I've seen it staged in many years of opera going, and I don't think I shall be rushing to see it staged again). Further, I was privileged to hear it performed in Berlin in April by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle, and with a cast led by Jonas Kaufmann and Magdalena Kozena. That was an outstanding evening (reviewed here by my esteemed brother). I'm afraid this performance didn't get near it.
Let us start with Bieto's production. This has divided critics into those who've raved and those who've loathed. Last night some debate unfolded on my Twitter timeline after one Telegraph critic announced that he had walked out in the interval. I can't really see any good reason for walking out of this for the simple reason that little of interest happens. In fairness to Bieto there are a couple of nice ideas – the big bull sign which is dismembered during the prelude to Act Four, followed by a bit of make believe bullfighting with the head is clever, and the encircling of Carmen and Jose in a bullring for their final confrontation likewise. But beyond that I found it a boring afternoon. There was little in the way of dramatic tension or erotic heat generated between the various protagonists, and Carmen's escape at the end of Act I was particularly unconvincing. More seriously, Bieto appears to regard all the sex in the show as being rather nasty and seedy. Well, I don't say this isn't a reasonable viewpoint but the problem is that it makes it rather difficult to care about any of the characters. I didn't find Carmen in the lest bit seductive, and couldn't really see why the men were falling over themselves to bed her. There were also the usual bits of incoherent staging – the opening chorus sings about all the people crossing the square – despite the fact that there's nobody else there, and when Escamillo enters in Act Four he comes in behind the chorus although they are apparently watching him out in the auditorium. Generally, I found Bieto's handling of the chorus ineffective.
The set is the latest entry in this year's competition to find new ways of being visually boring for as long as possible. The stage is covered in sand occasionally enlivened by passing cars, a flagpole, or (for reasons that particularly baffled me) a decorated Christmas tree. Is it supposed to be Christmas in Act Two?
Musically the afternoon can best be described as undistinguished and the biggest problem I'm afraid was Ryan Wigglesworth's conducting. This is a score that has its longeurs, but Rattle directed a performance of such excitement and verve that one scarcely noticed them. Wigglesworth has impressed me in other repertoire but he appeared far from at home with Bizet. Tempi were mostly much too slow, barring occasional sudden spurts (which seemed at times to catch those on stage off guard). Fundamentally there was a critical lack of excitement and drive. When Carmen becomes plodding you've got a big problem.
The singers similarly left rather a lot to be desired. Ruxandra Donose as Carmen had a nice dark tone, and it wasn't lack of power per se but she somehow just never really commanded the stage either vocally or dramatically. The costuming and movement were not much help here, but even so. Adam Diegel's Don Jose is more problematic. He can just about manage the part, but the voice often sounded strained, and his acting was unconvincing. Bieto's staging of the last scene especially would pack more punch with better singing actors. I was also unconvinced by Elizabeth Llewellyn's Micaela. This one may really be me, but I just don't find her voice appealing – warbly is the word that springs to mind. For this particular part I think you need more beauty and variety of tone. Leigh Melrose delivered a strong Escamillo.
To some extent English National Opera can breath a sigh of relief about this show. It may be a dull staging, but it's serviceable and can be revived (and there have been precious few such stagings at the house in recent years of which that could be said). But it is not, as far as I'm concerned, anywhere near a hit.