Barrie Kosky’s Carmen, returning to the Royal Opera House for the third time, rebels against the opera’s traditional 19th century Spanish visuals. This is no surprise – the 2016 production originated in regietheater-steeped Frankfurt. Out go realistic representations of a cigarette factory, gypsy bar and bullring, replaced by designer Katrin Lea Tag’s stark staircase and monochrome costumes. But if the aim is to focus on the drama rather than picture-postcard trappings, the dramatic performances need to be correspondingly stronger.
Only Anaïk Morel’s Carmen is up to the challenge, a mesmerising cocktail of cherubic innocence, sexiness and danger. The rest of the cast make little impact, unaided by the disembodied narration that replaces the work’s spoken dialogue. Narrative flow is destroyed, reducing the opera to a series of disconnected tableau.
Kosky’s substitute for an interesting set is an increased dance element, but despite the giant staircase there are no Busby Berkeley showstoppers. Otto Pichler has choreographed a conceptual, often subversive ballet. The seductive bohemian dance is subtly captivating, but Bizet’s effervescent quintet is ruined by the incongruous dancers’ deranged mimed laughter.
The overall impression is of cold detachment. Kosky’s shameless disrespect for the work is confirmed by the feeble shoulder-shrug ending.
Musically, things are more successful. Complementing Morel’s rich-voiced gypsy heroine are Ailyn Perez’s impassioned Micaela, Bryan Hymel’s fluently powerful Don Jose and Luca Pisaroni’s suave Escamillo. Julia Jones conducts with terrific zest, equally attuned to the Offenbachian sparkle and dark intensity of Bizet’s greatest score. The ROH orchestra and chorus are superb.