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S & H Opera Review

Bizet, Carmen, Soloists, ENO, Coliseum, 21st May 2004 (MB)


This fourth revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1995 Carmen is looking tired. Seeming more claustrophobic than ever, with on stage action amidst the crowd scenes looking more and more like the bustle of rush-hour tube travel, the production now seems to utilise the depth of the Coliseum’s stage less vividly than it once seemed. The setting – Franco’s Spain – was never entirely relevant at the time and seems less so now; the walls are cracked, the pavements still cobbled. Nothing really alludes to the time in which the opera is set. In Act II, I am more convinced than ever we could be drinking in the cellar of Gordon’s Wine Bar – smoke-filled rooms, wobbly tables and dust-strewn, cobwebbed walls. It’s low-life yes, but not quite the Rabelaisian or Dickensian low-life that Bizet had in mind. Act III now seems disturbingly prosaic - plunged into ultra-violet hues, it appeals only to those who feel the need to be anaesthetized, Prufrock style. And, regrettably, this is rather the impression the performance gave.

David Atherton often lacked the dramatic flair the score demands – and apart from a superbly exciting ‘Les tringles’ at the opening of Act II, by far the most successful act musically in this performance - this was studied conducting without the effervescence Bizet’s music needs to carry it off (and, I’m afraid, this opera can seem vastly over-rated and very long if tempi are slumbering). Nietzsche called the opera "wicked, subtle and fatalistic" but Miller’s production is none of those things and Atherton’s conducting at times seemed hindered by that. Also problematical is Keith and Emma Warner’s demotic, Eastenders inspired translation which removes any sense of eroticism from the libretto. There is a lot of shit flying around – literally in the case of the translation - and too often it is perfectly audible.

More damagingly, a Carmen without any sexual electricity between its Carmen and Don José is a doomed venture. Whilst both Sara Fulgoni and John Hudson sang their roles confidently, the very lack of sexuality between them was a disappointment. Perhaps this is because Miller reinvented what Carmen was; for Bizet she was more a conventional heroine; for Miller (and for David Ritch in this revival) she is unscrupulous, a liar and a thief (and also, it should be said, a prick-teaser – how wonderfully she placed a rose in the barrel of a rifle in Act I). No wonder Hudson’s Don José, still very much a naïve country boy at heart, collapses so quickly into self-destruction in the face of such latter day anti-heroism.

Fulgoni’s Carmen exudes decadence wonderfully, however. She has the looks – long black hair, an alluring figure that looks stunning in red – and a voice that often compels. If one wanted much more – very much more – from the Habanera it wasn’t forthcoming, even if elsewhere she brought richness to what she sang – she was wonderful in the Quintet, one of the highlights of the performance, and in the card scene in Act III, even if the tragedy of her situation never really unfolded as it might. The voice is certainly rich – too deep in my view for this role (one always yearned for just a little of Baltsa’s innate lightness of tone). An unsteadiness at the bottom of her mezzo register can be distracting but when she sings above the stave the security is never less than breathtaking. In that sense, she is well matched by her Don José - Hudson threw out some simply thrilling high notes in Act IV, unlikely heroism, but ringing of tone and never less than musical.

Of the other singers, the Escamillo of Peter Coleman-Wright (a memorable Scarpia last year) brought swaggering masculinity to his role and his singing of ‘Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre’ was a highlight of the performance, balanced of tone and using voice and body with equal magnetism. He was the only singer I wished I was hearing singing his role in French. Sally Harrison (replacing an ill Alison Roddy) as Micaëla sang with real beauty but the voice is prone to a very wide vibrato at the top of her register and that in itself made her diction less focused than was ideal. At times, she may well have been singing in French.

Choruses – whether they be children, soldiers, smugglers or whatever - were not always together – either musically or choreographically – and at times too much dramatic reserve detracted from a sense of realism in what was happening on stage. Beneath the stage, Atherton got some seductive playing from the orchestra – especially from the woodwind players.

Smoking plays an important part in this production. Cigarettes are the only constant – lit, inhaled, exhaled, stumped out – without a cigarette factory in sight. St Martin’s Lane was simply awash with smokers during the two intervals. It seems ENO’s Carmen might be the last refuge for this dying breed.

Marc Bridle


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