Calixto Bieito’s take on Bizet’s Carmen is tough, dark, spare and intelligent. There’s little of the vulgarity that can make Bieito’s shows annoyingly embarrassing. But there’s absolutely no Andalucian kitsch either. A Spanish flag in act one, a looming Osborne bull ad backdrop in act three and, at the last, Escamillo dressed for the corrida are just about the only reminders of where we are. Almost all the dialogue has been cut and although there are striking visual moments, it is the threat and reality of male sexual violence that dominates this Carmen.
Vocally it is a strong revival, too. Justina Gringyte commands the title role. She looks, and is, more eastern European than Spanish, and in the act-three card scene she sounds as if she is singing Tchaikovsky rather than Bizet. But she has a vibrant mezzo with a strong top, as well as stage presence to spare, and she is good at capturing Carmen’s reckless vulnerability. Eric Cutler’s Don José is musically and theatrically an even more impressive achievement. He moves more convincingly than many Josés from mummy’s boy to violent abuser, and he has the measure of the role’s many vocal challenges, too, passing the test of his act-two aria in style.
The evening’s final great strength is the playing of the ENO orchestra under Richard Armstrong in the pit. Armstrong’s long years of experience as an opera conductor in Wales and Scotland mean that nothing is overdone and yet nothing is missed. There is real authority in his handling of the score throughout. ENO has made a smart move by adding him to their roster.
Note; The above is a summary of the review in the Guardianonline.