BWW Review: CARMEN, Royal Opera House
The problem with the description "There's something for everyone to like" is the inevitable corollary that there's also something for everyone to dislike too. With dance, a touch of cabaret (maybe even Cabaret), a Busby Berkeley staircase - and much, much more - Barrie Kosky's 2016 Carmen has something for everyone, but....
In this production's second revival, we are still invited to forego many of the specificities of the original 1875 work. And why not? No opera has proved more malleable for adapters' red pencils and new approaches. But how did anyone consider a disembodied narrator telling us what we can plainly see to be the key oversight of Bizet and co? ("Alexa - summarise the plot of Carmen. In French")
Designer, Katrin Lea Tag, provides us with a wonderful staircase that reminded me of the terraces on which I stood to watch football in the 80s - ideal for the high testosterone world of bullfighting. But, after a two hours first half, they're still there after the interval. I was reminded of my reaction to Niagara Falls - very impressive, but does it do anything else? I'll never look at a bar code in quite the same way.
Much the best of the (can I use the word?) gimmicks, is the troupe of dancers, who do a bit of early 90s vogueing, but plenty more too, and add both to the narrative and the spectacle. Wisely, flamenco is eschewed.
Ultimately, for all the showmanship and innovation, the best elements of the evening were the ones that cleaved closest to Bizet's original material. Though there are additions and excisions in Constantinos Carydis's adaptation, we get all the tunes you know (and some that you didn't know you knew) played with great brio by Julia Jones's orchestra - who, let's face it, could do this in their sleep.
Anaïk Morel gives us a heroine of two halves. Sexy and sassy in Acts One and Two, her impatience with her lover, Don José, flares almost instantly after the interval, making her appear capricious and flighty, rather than committed to her gypsy blood. But an unexpected denouement might just suggest that she staged it all - Carmen is nothing if not a show(wo)man after all.
Morel has the voice of course and does some of her best acting while standing slightly aside from the action, observing, assessing, deciding how to manipulate these men, while staying true to her own credo of the pursuit of hedonism.
Tenor Bryan Hymel casts a more tragic figure as her ill-suited lover, but sings with such pathos that one's heart goes out to him - crazy in love indeed. With everything going on up and down the staircase, his plaintive confession of the loneliness of a love unreturned gets to the heart of the matter.
Amongst the support, Ailyn Pérez is splendid as the ingénue, Micaéla, (never more charming than when she missed the curtain call only to run on mouthing "Sorry" to all and sundry!) and Luca Pisaroni gives it the full "Hey Everyone! Look at me!" as toreador Escamillo. I enjoyed the beautiful singing of Jacquelyn Stucker and Hongni Wu as Carmen's sidekicks, Frasquita and Mercédés, but their relentless bumping and grinding grated - we get it girls...
Hats off to the chorus too, running up and down those stairs and never tripping once. I'm not entirely sure that an outlaw band of gypsy smugglers would affect tone-on-tone greys somewhere between Calvin Klein and GAP as their mountain attire but it's the singing that matters and the singing is wonderful.
There's a splendid show in here (once Alexa shuts up) but there's just a bit too much "try-hard" about its conception and execution. One gets the need to do something new with such a pillar of the operatic canon and the little closing twist, though just another irritation at the time, works much better on reflection, Carmen free again. But maybe Bizet and, especially librettists, Meilhac and Halévy could be trusted a little more - they did know a bit about putting a show together.
Photo Bill Cooper