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.
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
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.
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.
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.
– 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.
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.