Prosper Merimee can hardly have foreseen the influence his novella would have on future generations of artists, composers and choreographers. Thanks largely to Georges Bizet, Carmen is one of the most widely recognised cultural icons in the world. It is one of those character tales that can be reduced to symbols: hotblooded gypsies, cigars, toreros, red ruffled skirts, flashing eyes, flashing blades and steamy sex.
Pretty much everyone’s had a go at co-opting the tale and using it for their own purposes. Jean-Luc Godard made the heroine of his film Prenom Carmen  into a gunslinging French terrorist. Oscar Hammerstein II turned her into an African-American hottie (Carmen Jones) in a parachute factory during the Second World War – later filmed by Otto Preminger . More recently, Carlos Acosta littered his ballet version  with all the usual cliches (see list above). A tale of fatal attraction, it is timeless, exciting and tragic.
How strange then that Irina Kolesnikova’s latest self-promoting venture should prove so lacklustre, so sexless, so utterly devoid of passion.
While there is no doubting her technical prowess – she is as comfortable en pointe as most of us are slouched in an armchair – there is a soulless narcissism about her performance that keeps the audience at arm’s length.
The setting in a latter-day refugee camp has creative possibilities, few of which are explored. Carmen appears to be an imposter, an outsider even among the motley Syrians – or whoever the corps de ballet represents. She is pursued by a vicious thug, Garcia (Yuri Kovalev), who comes across as a low-rent Von Rothbart, and flirts with a decent cop, Jose (Dmitry Akulinin). She sort of adopts a little girl who has become separated from her mother.
Dark clouds scud across a screen at the rear as the ensemble huddles together, hemmed in by metal barriers. Groups of journalists and police come and go and a ball game enlivens proceedings, leaving a faint trace of authenticity in the air.
But Olga Kostel’s choreography rarely rises above the banal, and the repetitive gestures of despair and cliched sexuality offer diminishing returns. By the time we get to a pas de deux as a symbolic bullfight, boredom turns to embarrassment.
The timidity of the English National Opera orchestra doesn’t help matters. The story is virtually impenetrable, and while there are intriguing fragments – the little girl’s delightful solo, the barriers used as a barre, a lift in which Garcia appears to hold Carmen aloft by her throat – they are few and far between.
To turn Merimee’s tough little tale into sentimental melodrama is quite an achievement. But not one that should be commended.