by Rachel Beaumont

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Seeing it for what it is: Carmen at the ROH

The Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Royal Box, general rehearsal
3 February 2018
ROH page

I had an interesting discussion about Carmen at new year’s, with a female friend who has a casual interest in opera. I rank Carmen as one of the finest operas there is, an opinion many of my acquaintances find bizarrely mainstream. I was incoherently trying to explain what I think is so great about it and had come to its ability to support an extroardinary depth of interpretation: you might think it’s about evil female sexuality that needs to be stamped out before it gobbles up any more men; you might equally argue it’s a celebration of that sexuality and a shame-caster upon the impotent men who seek to control it; etc. ‘Hang on’, said my friend, who is very smart and a feminist. ‘How is Carmen a victim?’ She had seen Carmen in the Royal Opera’s previous, Zambello production, but, because she had never thought about it, it had never occurred to her that Carmen could be anything more than a wicked femme fatale leading good young men astray.

That’s a long intro to saying that in this sense I think Kosky’s new Carmen for the Royal Opera is only a huge step forwards. There are other senses, too, in which I think it represents progress – the Zambello would make me squirm with embarrassment, with its dirty gypsies and choreographed stage routines and excessive animals. But the most important advancement is this disencumbering of Carmen of its traditional (tedious) trappings, easing the way for even the most casual of audiences to see it for what it definitely is – a sophisticated and, so far, timeless exploration of what being in love is and how it affects your behaviour with those around you – while at the same time enjoying some cracking tunes.

I won’t say Kosky’s production is perfect. While I rather liked the arena-like staircase, I can understand others might find it too economical for opera – and of course the fact that the top of the stairs is invisible from a considerable proportion of seats is a major and disappointing oversight. I felt Kosky and his choreographer Otto Pichler heaved the odd sigh of anguish over what to do with a particular scene – the opéra-comique-y quintet, for example; or the finale, with a lot of jumping for the choruses and a magnificent long train for Carmen which, after its impressive entrance, was used only lamely (is there symbolism over a tug of war between José and Carmen over the big skirt? If there is it’s lame). And Kosky is true to his fizzing, hyper-energetic, grotesque form – if you don’t like Kosky’s other work, you won’t like this.

But for my taste, this production does all the important things right (with the exception of sightlines). Conductor Jakub Hrusa gives a fantastically enjoyable account of the score, fizzing with energy and delightfully buoyant precision from the orchestra. Anna Goryachova sounds splendid, looks stunning and entirely embraces Kosky’s concepts. Francesco Meli is as solidly reliable as usual. It was interesting to hear parts of the score which are usually cut (though I can see why they are usually cut). Giving the spoken dialogue to a bodyless narrator I think is a smart move. The dancers were phenomenally tireless. The whole thing was extremely entertaining. And most of all, Kosky gives room for diverse interpretation.

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