Carmen as you’ve never seen before

Apologises. This one is a long report because there was plenty to cover on Barrie Kosky’s production. Enjoy!

For those of you who are new to Bizet’s opera, you’ve heard the music before. Without knowing it, you’ve heard the music of Carmen in a perfume, insurance or car advert. It is the second most performed opera at the Royal Opera House (ROH), and many would recommend Carmen as an opera for first-timers to see, yet I’m unsure if I’d say the same for the opening night I attended on Monday.

The ROH introduced a brand new production spearheaded by Australian opera and musical director Barrie Kosky and to say it broke the mould is an understatement. Throughout the evening my new-to-Carmen friend and I shared the same feelings about the opera. We were confused and unsure of what we were watching. Was it a dance show? Was it a musical? I’d say it was definitely an opera with plenty of dancing in it—wonderful modern slash contemporary dancing in almost every scene—yet the novelty and eccentricity didn’t end there.

ROH and the Youth Opera Company, Bill Cooper

ROH and the Youth Opera Company, Bill Cooper

Kosky removes the dialogue and songs between numbers for a pre-recorded voice that is meant to represent Carmen narrating her own story. These are adapted excerpts by 19th-century librettists Meilhac, Halévy and novelist Mérimée, obviously in French, and they were overkill. They kept pulling me out of the drama and chopping the opera into unnecessary segments that it took me a while to get back into the story. It felt like I was watching an opera desperately trying to be a French documentary, all, at once.

There was impatience in the air. Sat up at the amphitheatre I heard tired sighs, yawning, shoe tapping, crackling cough sweet wrappers and the usual annoying ringtone, here and there. I had high expectations for the evening, and that’s probably my fault, but I’d done my research and gathered that some people wouldn’t agree with what Kosky had prepared. I wasn’t expecting one of them to be me, though.

The stage is a blank slate, not a sight of a gypsy girl or a splash of Spanish cliché. However, Kosky keeps the matador outfits, and Katrin Lea Tag assists him by designing them in bright neon colours. Kosky throws all of our preconceptions out of the window in exchange for a 16-step set of stairs, large enough to encompass the entire stage. The soloists, dancers and chorus are forced to use this space as a place to perform and run as fast as they can without tripping, but the place, itself, is set nowhere. It’s like a dream or abstract concept stuck in someone’s head. Call it Being Carmen or Carmen in Wonderland.

Anna Goryachova (Carmen) and Francesco Meli (Don Jose) in Carmen Tristram Kenton

Anna Goryachova (Carmen) and Francesco Meli (Don Jose) in Carmen by Tristram Kenton

The tale goes that Carmen is a dominant and sexual female who loves who she wants to love whenever she wants. Don José is a tame corporal Carmen seduces and he instantly falls in love with her. The Carmen I’m used to ends tragically with Don José stabbing Carmen to death, yet Kosky changed that, and much more, to challenge the status quo, push the audience out of their comfort zone and give them a memorable experience. From the reactions on social media on Monday night quite a few people would rather not remember the evening at all, while others felt a strong connection to the show and were wholly entertained.

The conductor Jakub Hrůša impressed the audience, and the orchestra performed one of its best nights at the opera house. (Well, that’s just my opinion.) Together, they kept the music exciting and enticing. Hrůša maintained a consistent fluidity and tempo. Some parts were slower than others, yet this was greatly welcomed. The evening itself was longer than most Carmen productions as Kosky brought in an extra 40 minutes originally written by Bizet, which was good to hear. Both orchestra and conductor were in excellent form, despite the novel happenings on stage. I’d happily listen to a recording of the night at home without having to watch anything.

Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo in Carmen, The Royal Opera Season © ROH/Bill Cooper

Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo in Carmen, The Royal Opera Season © ROH/Bill Cooper

The ROH Chorus were on point, performing their characters as animated as possible. They sang assuringly and with verve. Carmen is a hot romance with tons of passions written in the music, and the ROH chorus were as much a talented group of vocalists as they were a spirited group of actors. So picture this: on one side of the 16-step stairs, the male chorus singers would slowly crawl over to the female chorus singers sat on the other side with adoring eyes, as if they were goddesses. That was one of my favourite visual moments. Yet, there’s a lustful undertone lurking in the opera and we could see that clearly from the ROH Chorus—trust them to keep these fixtures intact. It’s part of the original narrative of Carmen, after all. The ROH’s Youth Opera Company deserve a shoutout too for their smiles and liveliness in the chorus song, ‘Avec la garde montante’ in act one.

Russian soprano Anna Goryachova had the job of singing and portraying a convincing Carmen whilst withstanding the pressures of the production’s dance and stage choreography. I’m of the belief that her voice was compromised because of it. Gorychova still sang admirably, and deep down I could tell she has a strong and devoted voice, pulling off a plausible Carmen too, but I wasn’t seeing her at her best on Monday night.

Kosky has Goryachova wear multiple outfits and costumes to symbolise Carmen’s ever-changing energy, according to the programme notes. From the outset, during the overture, she added colour to the stage with her own hot-pink and stylish matador outfit with a black bowler hat to match. Then there was the all anticipatory song Habanera, which the audience had been dying to hear. She surprised us by entering on to the stage in a Gorilla outfit. Yes, I repeat a Gorilla outfit! Lucky for us at the amphitheatre, we got to laugh out loud first for seeing her at the top of the stairs. Why Kosky decided to do this? Who knows, I’m trying not to overthink it. But her last dress, which has a large and long train in the shape of a triangle, is a spectacular sight, yet in the scenes leading up to the most devastating scene, Goryachova struggled to move in her couture. Don José had to help her carry her dress as if it were a large blanket for a king-size bed.

Director of Carmen, ROH 2018: Barrie Kosky @newyorktimes

Director of Carmen, ROH 2018: Barrie Kosky @newyorktimes

Francesco Meli’s Don José seemed like a man who fell for a woman and became mentally insane and obsessed that he felt compelled to kill her. I didn’t see much of Don José’s behavioural transgression towards aggression and jealousy clearly enough in this show, and it didn’t help that there was hardly a connection between Don José’s and Carmen’s character. Again, this could have been down to the jazz hands and show business happening on stage, but I didn’t feel it. Meli also seemed to stumble vocally in the first few acts, but he seemed to improve and become confident by the final act with Goryachova in C’est toi! C’est moi. It was one of the rare scenes in the production where I was reminded I was watching an opera I had paid to see, but I’m fully aware that it was the first night. Meli may get better vocally during the rest of run.

Kristina Mkhitaryan had one of the pleasant and strongest voices in the production. She acts as our innocent and overlooked Micaëla who is caught in the crossfire. She sang elegantly throughout the evening. Those moments of pathos particularly Micaëla’s aria, Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante, were dreamy and persuasive. Mkhitaryan induced the audience to pay attention and to listen to Micaëla’s woes over Don José interest in Carmen.

Kostas Smoriginas’s Escamillio had a cocky grin and an air of arrogance about him, and so he should being the champion matador! Entering the stage with his signature pink socks and matador costume, which was embroidered with diamante from head to toe, his Toreador song was show business ‘musical’ worthy. He was another victim of choreography excess, though. Keeping up with his vocal abilities and dancing, his Toreador song wasn’t exactly showstopping, but all-round entertaining. The audience applauded him nonetheless.

Carmen 2018, ROH, Photo-by-Bill-Cooper

Carmen 2018, ROH, Photo-by-Bill-Cooper

Frasquita as Jacquelyn Stucker and Aigul Akhmetshina as Mercédès were playful and cheeky as Carmen’s sidekick. I saw Stucker and Akhmetshina make funny expressions in the background as Micaëla was begging Don José to visit his dying mother. Both Stucker and Akhmetshina are part of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, which gives support to opera singers at the beginning of their careers, and their voices were as vibrant as their bratty and buoyant role-playing. Their performance with Goryachova of Chanson boheme didn’t disappoint the audience either.

This leaves us with the ensemble of dancers who appeared to have plenty of fun on stage. They filled the room with sparkles of razzle dazzle and impressive modern and contemporary dance choreography. Was it Thriller: The Musical? The athletic group included Robin Gladwin, Ellyn Hebron, Merry Holden, Gareth Mole, Yasset Roldan, Harriet Waghorn, Lucy Alderman and David Ledger. They too came dressed for the occasion in their matador outfits, yet I felt they took the focus away from the singers sometimes, and that’s not the dancers’ fault. Bearing this in mind, I’m not saying you can’t sing operatically and dance at the same time, but it is quite an effort for the soloists to give a quality performance having to do both. It just seemed like a flippant idea from Kosky to make Smoriginas and Goryachonva have to endure that.

When Carmen first premiered in 1874, it bombed and caused a controversial stir in Paris. Similarly, Kosky may be trying to re-enact the past in hope that we may regret it in the future. Only time can tell if he wins. The production itself has many great visual moments, it’s even exciting at times, yet too much happens on stage that it’s hard to focus on the music without some form of distraction. There were the dim lights too, which made some audience members want to sleep. Others may complain that they were misled into seeing an opera when the production was clearly influenced by vaudeville, cabaret and jazz hands.

ROH Chorus with soloists @ Bill Cooper

ROH Chorus with soloists @ Bill Cooper

All I can say is that I stayed until the end because I was curious enough to see how it would end. Plus, I felt a strong connection with the voices and the music. Gorilla outfits, altered endings and the whole cross-pollination of genres sounds revolutionary in theory, but for it to really work properly it has to be done coherently. That was largely missing here on Monday night.

I love musicals, in fact, I saw one last week called Eugenius! at The Other Palace Theatre (read my review here) and I was clapping my hands and clicking my fingers to the brilliant songs because that’s what you do in a musical. However, I went to see an opera, and I didn’t feel inclined to clap to songs or click my fingers even when the performers did. Call me traditional, but that’s just me. Go see Carmen and make up your mind for yourself. It may enlighten you.

Carmen is showing at the Royal Opera House until March 16th. Purchase tickets here. Alternatively you can see the Live Screen viewing on March 6th. Click here for more details.