English National Opera brings back Bieito’s production of ‘Carmen’

Poster courtesy ENO

English National Opera brings back Calixto Bieito’s bold and gritty production of Bizet’s hugely popular opera Carmen – last staged by ENO in 2020. Directed by Jamie Manton, the opera stars mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson as the fiery, passionate and seductive Carmen, and tenor Sean Panikkar as Don José, the army corporal who falls for her attractions.

Baritone Nmon Ford takes the role of Escamillo – the handsome toreador who is well aware of his appeal to women – and soprano Gemma Summerfield is Micaëla, the sweet peasant girl who is betrothed to Don José. The conductor of this co-production with Den Norske Opera and Ballet is Kerem Hasan.

In 1872, Georges Bizet was commissioned to write a new work by the Paris Opéra-Comique – an institution known historically for its light, moralistic, safe and predictable pieces – and although the aim of this commission was to try and raise the theatre from its somewhat dull reputation, the co-directors had no idea just how revolutionary Bizet’s opera would be.

Based on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée, with a libretto in French by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, Bizet’s Carmen broke new ground, focussing on the underclass – the so-called ‘common folk’, which included gypsies, smugglers and factory workers, women who smoked in public, who were involved in physical fights and who were sexually free. Consequently, when the opera premiered at the Opéra-Comique on 3rd March 1875, it was condemned by the critics as immoral and vulgar.

Bizet, who had taken a lot of care to familiarise himself with the music of Andalusia – the region in which the original story of Carmen was set – was devastated by this reception, and at the time of his death, three months after the premiere, he was certain that he’d written the greatest failure in the history of opera. He didn’t live to see how successful his Carmen would become – nor did he know of the prediction of Tchaikovsky no less, that within 10 years, it would become “the most popular opera in the world”.

Carmen usually calls to mind a vision of 19th century Seville, with Spanish señoritas, their flicking fans and swirling skirts. Catalan director Calixto Bieito, Artistic Director of Teatro Arriaga in Bilbao, has however set his opera in Ceuta, the autonomous Spanish city situated at the tip of North Africa, and has brought the setting forward to the post-Franco Spain of the 1970s. His Carmen, he says, is a survivor of a difficult life – earthy, melancholy and sensitive, living in a dangerous and violent society.

Ginger Costa-Jackson is regarded as one of the most exciting and versatile artists of her generation, regularly preforming on the stages of the world’s leading opera houses, including those of the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Opéra National de Paris, La Monnaie/De Munt, and the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Ms Costa-Jackson has most recently been seen as Carmen at Lyric Opera of Kansas City and as Preziosilla in Verdi’s La forza del destino at Amigos de la Ópera A Coruña. Broadway World writes of her portrayal of Carmen: “Her voice, sultry looks, and sensuous flamenco dancing are perfect for the role.” Following this run of Carmen, Ginger will appear as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther at Grange Park Opera and as Bradamante in Händel’s Alcina at Seattle Opera.

Sean Panikkar’s voice, says Opera News, is “… unassailable – firm, sturdy and clear, and he employs it with maximum dramatic versatility”.  He followed his success as Dionysus in Henze’s The Bassarids at the 2018 Salzburg Festival with a critically acclaimed performance as Gandhi in Philip Glass’s Satyagraha for Los Angeles Opera. He was most recently seen as Leonard in Kevin Puts’ The Hours for both Metropolitan Opera and Müpa Budapest, and will be appearing later this season as Tambourmajor in Berg’s Wozzeck at Wiener Staatsoper, and as Laertes in Dean’s Hamlet for Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.

Following a performance of Strauss’ Salome at Pittsburgh Opera, concerto.net wrote: “Nmon Ford …. is a Jochanaan of imposing stature with a superb stage presence, and furthermore he has a powerful and magnificent voice”. Grammy-winning Nmon Ford has performed the role of Crown in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess for ENO, and most recently appeared as Escamillo for Opera Colorado and Calgary Opera. In another appearance this season he takes the role of Sharpless in Cincinnati Opera’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. In 2024, he will be performing the title role in his own composition, House of Orfeus – of which he is also the librettist – as a co-production with Lincoln Center and Opera Carolina.

Making her debut for ENO, Gemma Summerfield has been described by The Telegraph as “… a show-stopper – pure vocal champagne …”. Highlights of her career include the roles of Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème for Northern Ireland Opera, Nanetta in Verdi’s Falstaff for Scottish Opera, and Pamina in Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Glyndebourne and Scottish Opera. Recent appearances include the roles of Erste Dame in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte for Staatsoper Hamburg, and Ms Summerfield is currently appearing as Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Così fan Tutte for Opéra Saint-Etienne and Opéra de Toulon. She is also scheduled to sing the role of Ulana in Paderewski’s Manru at Opéra National de Lorraine.

Also in the cast are Matthew Durkan ad Dancairo, Keel Watson as Zuniga and ENO Harewood Artists Benson Wilson, Alexandra Oomens and Innocent Masuku.

Jamie Manton makes a welcome return to ENO as stage director for this production, having directed the 2020 staging of Bieito’s Carmen for the Company. Last year he directed the production of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen for ENO, which was nominated for an Olivier Award.

Kerem Hasan – chief conductor of the Tiroler Symphonieorchester Innsbruck since September 2019 – returns to ENO, having led the 2022 ENO production of Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte. In this production of Bizet’s Carmen, he leads the English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus at the London Coliseum from 1st to 24th February. Further information is available on the English National Opera website, where details of booking can also be found.

Information sourced from:

English National Opera programme notes

Ginger Costa Jackson

Sean Panikkar

Nmon Ford

Gemma Summerfield

Jamie Manton

Keren Hasam

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