Another year, another Carmen. The English National Opera, having secured another year of Arts Council funding in 2023, starts off the season with Bizet’s beloved opera.
Carmen and Don José’s boy meets girl, girl spurns boy, boy kills girl, love story still satisfies the desire for operatic tragedy, even in director Calixto Bieito’s updated production. Rusty cars as makeshift homes and dust covered military uniforms provide the Spanish colonial setting, where Franco’s tyrannical dictatorship reigns supreme. In this world, aggression and poverty inform social relationships, even between lovers.
Making her ENO debut, Ginger Costa-Jackson adds yet another Carmen portrayal to her impressive list of performances. Sultry, clever and assertive, Costa-Jackson’s flighty yet restrained depiction of Carmen is captivating, as is her unique voice. Her low notes possess an intimate depth, while her higher range sparkles off the London Coliseum stage. The clingy and ordinary Micaëla, the childhood friend who attempts to win José’s affection, stood no chance against Carmen, although Carrie-Ann Williams made an impressive ENO debut in the role, filling in for the ill Gemma Summerfield.
Sean Panikkar reprises his role as our leading man, the walking red-flag Don José. Emotionally repressed with flashes of anger, Panikkar strikes the perfect balance between selfishly aggressive and defensively guilty. He nails the Joe Goldberg style of cruelty, while disclosing moments of pure emotion through his impressive tenor voice.
In contrast, Nmon Ford makes for a delightfully captivating Escamillo. His arrogance comes off as charming, playful even, and, when matched against Panikkar’s militant José, he clearly comes off as the more desirable lover.
Even the third time round, the violence in Bieito’s Carmen still leaves audiences tingling in the throes of its ruthless spectacle. It’s a shame that conductor Kerem Hasan doesn’t make the score sparkle, but once again the ENO chorus provides colour and heart.
If you haven’t seen this acclaimed and regularly performed Carmen it is well worth a watch, but if you have, it might be worth holding out for another, more distinct rendition. After all, it won’t be long until another Carmen comes along, so we can all afford to be a little picky.