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A CurtainUp London London Review

They were in love but not for long and for Carmen commitment is a dirty word!— Escamillo
Alice Coote as Carmen and Julian Gavin as Don José. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

The Coliseum is one of London's most beautiful theatres and I couldn't resist the opportunity to see Bizet's opera Carmen there. Directed by Sally Potter who directed films like Orlando and The Tango Lesson, this is the ENO's first major production of Carmen since I took my teenage son to the Jonathan Miller "Cartier-Bresson" design inspired Carmen in the mid 1990s. We are promised passion, obsession and tragedy in a spectacular new production.

I liked Es Devlin's innovative design — the sepia projections, the cinematic strip set of Act Three which looks like a series of film frames across the set in which dancing feet appear. There are witty touches like the children's chorus in their communion white dresses, veils and suits, all finished off with sunglasses or the wonderfully tall, proud, bitchy flamenco dancers at Lilia Pastia's beautiful Edward Hopper type bar who are in fact drag queens.

The setting is modern and instead of the army, José (Julian Gavin) is one of an army of security guards. We see him in his security cabin watching the road outside the Coliseum on closed circuit television. I'm not sure where Carmen was working except that all the women seemed to be in underwear so either it was very hot or they were sex workers! Maybe in nearby Soho? On checking the programme notes, it turns out that these women are prostitutes!

Respectable, homely Micaëla (the American soprano Katy Van Kooten) brings José a message from his ill mother. Escamillo (David Kempster) a celebrity bullfighter visits the bar with his celebrity watching entourage. José runs off with Carmen and they join a group of smugglers. Carmen has her fortune told in the cards and sees her own death. José and Escamillo fight over Carmen. Micaëla follows José to tell him of his mother's dying and he leaves with her. The smugglers reach Spain where they have been invited to see a bullfight where Escamillo is performing. Rejected and angry, José is stalking Carmen who appears on Escamillo's arm. José and Carmen argue and he stabs her to death just as the crowd signal Escamillo's victory in the fight with a tremendous cheer.

Sally Potter has included some beautiful South American dances in this production. Pablo Veron and Kate Flatt have collaborated with Ms Potter on the choreography and Pablo Veron dances with the lovely Lucila Cionci graceful, hypnotic and erotic dances based on the tango or the pasa doblé. As Carmen sings about the cards, these two dancers perform below, the girl is pivotted and spun by the man, more like a doll or maybe someone who is resigned to her fate and powerless to escape. Outside the bullring, the acrobatic street boys give an exciting dance display of break dancing and tremendous agility.

The orchestra is tip top as are the voices. Alice Coote is very strong vocally with an amazing vocal range. The male leads too are magnificent and Katy Van Kooten threatens to steal the show with her solo rendition of Micaëla's sad tale. My reservations are twofold. No matter how they try, I find the English translations never match up to the drama of the original. Christopher Cowell's new translation tries hard. Any clumsy words we might have glossed over are highlighted in the English surtitles above the stage which only serve to underline the pedestrian element of the words. And talking of pedestrian, I was unable to believe that Alice Coote's Carmen was a femme fatale. Barefoot or in flat shoes even in her corrida finery, she seemed to lack the sex appeal that Carmen has to have. Carmen should ooze sexuality. Plain women can make up for this with great acting but Ms Coote who is not unattractive always seemed to have her two feet firmly planted on the ground. The beautiful dancers performing onstage just served to underline Carmen and José's lack of sexual magnetism.

by George Bizet
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy after the novel by Prosper Mérimée
English translation by Christopher Cowell
Directed by Sally Potter

Starring: Alice Coote, Katy Van Kooten, Julian Gavin, David Kempster
With: Ronan Collett, Graeme Danby, Fiona Murphy, Elena Xanthoudakis, Andrew Rees, Scott Davies, Lucila Cionci, Pablo Veron
Set Design: Es Devlin
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Choreographers: Sally Potter, Pablo, Kate Flatt
Conductor: Edward Gardner
Video Design: Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer
Running time: Three hours with one interval
Box Office: 0870 145 0200
Booking to 23rd Novemberer 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th October 2007 performance at the London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane London WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)

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