Until Sun Dec 9 2012
© Alastair Muir
Time Out rating:
Not yet rated
Time Out says
Posted: Thu Nov 29 2012
Talk about try-hard! Director Calixto Bieito pulls out the stops to bring Bizet's mastepiece to the masses. But as it is already the most popular opera in the world, does it really need all the extras (literally in the case of the 15 non-singing actors whose only function is to flex their ripped bods).
In this production for English National Opera, events begin in an army camp in 1970s Spain or one of its outposts, where soldiers in mirrored sunglasses with tattoos receive inspection before going wild with the local factory girls, kicking the hell out of a phone booth and sending one young woman up a flagpole (the other object on stage).
So far so good, and there are some great performances among the grunts, notably baritone Duncan Rock who looks every inch the bullying Corporal Moralès, and Graeme Danby his lieutenant, who meets his end at the hands of the sharp-suited psychopathic, coke-snorting smugglers, convincingly played by Alun Rhys-Jenkins and Dean Street. But this is where it all goes awry. The careful plotting of the opera that results in Don José sacrificing his military career for a woman he can never possess is lost in a confused pastiche of modern gangster-film clichés that take place around a car, standing in for Lillas Pastia's Tavern.
Then there is the gratuitous naked toreador doing his morning practice. It is not Escamillio, of course, but a handsome, fit actor, embodying how this is all about syle superseding plot substance and the music. Which is a shame, because Ryan Wigglesworth delivers a solid performance from the orchestra, but on stage most of the singing is hesitant and approximate – bass-baritone Leigh Melrose (as bullfighter Escamilio) struggles for clarity at the bottom while singing behind the beat in his 'Torreador's Song'; Diegel's tenor (Don José) is strong but pinched; Elizabeth Llewellyn is the most convincing, her punctilious soprano suiting the role of nice girl Micaëla (though here less ingénue more groovy hippy chick.) There is also a splendid turn from the children's chorus, whose adoration of the bullfighter was greatly enlivening, and a hilarious performance from Rhian Lois and Medelaine Shaw as a pair of drunken gypsy whores.
And what of the title character? Does Romanian mezzo Ruxandra Donose have the gypsy sizzle to steal every scene; to be the woman that all men desire but who destroys them and casts them aside in favour of freedom? Not really. She comes across as rather demure, just another one of the girls and seemingly uncomfortable in the lap-dancing and other gyrations that she is required to perform in Calixto's effort to sex-up proceedings, transforming Bizet's jewel-like opera into a confused and superficial musical.