ENO’s latest productions are both challenging and meaningful
English National Opera’s Carmen is a stark, hard-nosed drama and Calixto Bieito’s uncompromising and provocative production is constantly gripping, reaching a white-hot intensity by the time of the confrontation between José and Escamillo in what has, by then, become a parking lot!
It’s a thoughtful piece, disconcerting at times. Set in Franco’s Spain, this is a sexually-charged Carmen populated by pimps, prostitutes and rough-and-tumble soldiers. There’s nothing you could call a set but there are plenty of spivvy, pimpy cars rolling on and off, and the stage is never short of action.
It burns slowly, but it’s nasty from the start, Micaëla being unpleasantly manhandled by the men as she first seeks out the Don José she wants to save.
As a piece of theatre this is a searing Carmen, full of challenging touches – a few of which would have been better omitted. Adam Diegel is a full-throated tenor as José but the vocal honours are stolen by Elizabeth Llewellyn, whose Micaëla is no innocent: she knows exactly what she is about.
Ruxandra Donose, making her ENO debut, makes a convincing Carmen, with an expressive and eloquent voice, if not the most powerful. Bieito’s production, originally staged in Barcelona in 2010, makes intense acting demands of its ‘heroine’ and Donose is more than up to the challenge.
Bieito makes clever use of the space, with chorus scenes, sometimes including a large contingent of children, of great power and impact. This chorus excels and, in the opera’s hairiest moments, Ryan Wigglesworth (whom I unaccountably called Gigglesworth in a tweet – sorry about that!) has the orchestra on fire.
All in all, an utterly different experience from ENO’s other new offering of the moment, a unique opportunity to experience Vaughan William’s remarkable The Pilgrim’s Progress, in a stylised production by Yoshi Oïda. This is the first time the opera has enjoyed a full professional staging since its premiere at the Festival of Britain in 1951 and it is shameful that such a profoundly moving work should languish in the archives.
Roland Wood immerses himself in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim and Benedict Nelson is an outstanding evangelist. Vaughan Williams’s score is brilliantly executed by the ENO Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins. The sets of The Pilgrim’s Progress are displayed in a special feature on the Gramophone website, but the riotous scenes at Vanity Fair deserve to be seen in the theatre. There’s some wonderful singing here and it is appalling that VW’s operatic work is given such short shrift. All credit to ENO, who are making a habit of resuscitating 20th-century English opera – VW’s mellow treatment of the Falstaff story, Sir John in Love, which I highlighted in a Specialist’s Guide in the September 2012 issue of Gramophone, was one of the company’s earlier offerings.
Two utterly contrasting operas, but each given thoughtful, challenging productions, which make a visit to English National Opera an unusually meaningful experience.
Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also finds time to sing in two choirs and is Production Editor of Gramophone.