CARMEN | London, Royal Opera House

Barrie Kosky’s brutal, flippant Carmen (2018) is a traditionalist’s nightmare. Already in its second revival, high-kicks, neon spandex, and jazz hands predominate in a metatheatrical production that exchanges the reverent ‘verismo’ treatment for frothy burlesque. The only set design (Katrin Lea Tag) is a giant, face-on staircase, which provides the platform for some arresting images, and highlights shifting power dynamics. A youthful chorus (directed by William Spaulding) and indefatigable dancers are used to full comic effect in revue-inspired choreography (Otto Pichler).

Anaik Morel’s Carmen is bright and arch — and she does a great job of selling the many dizzying costume changes and complex choreography. Her entrance in gorilla suit is probably the most characteristic moment of the production at its best: shocking, incongruous, and sticking two fingers up to the traditional pieties.

Unfortunately, this production’s insistence on deconstruction and metatheatre leads at times to brittle, Brechtian characters, and an unnerving cynicism at the heart of drama. Stripped of its usual richness, the love triangle struggles to develop genuine tension, and Carmen’s choice between soldier Don Jose (Bryan Hymel) and matador Escamillo (Luca Pisaroni), feels fairly anodyne. Adapting to the vaudeville tone, macho matador is transformed into gaudy-socked crooner, and vigorous soldier into credulous lover. Ponderous recorded narration also slows down scene transitions.

Even with your eyes closed, the production is still pretty mad: there are many uncommon musical additions, and Julia Jones conducts a fast-paced rendition of this re-energised score. At times, this opera feels like a glorious melodrama that’s desperate to escape from its razzle-dazzle cage.

Tickets still available until 20 July 2019.

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