Georges Bizet’s Carmen is regarded as one of the most popular operas ever composed, thrilling audiences the world over. This revival by English National Opera, however, is Carmen with a difference – a bold and gritty production by Catalan director Calixto Bieito, which was first staged at ENO in 2012.
In 1872 Bizet was invited to collaborate on a new full-length work by the theatre director of the Opéra-Comique in Paris. The composer suggested to librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy (who had previously worked with Jacques Offenbach) an adaptation of the novella, Carmen, by Prosper Mérimée, written and first published in 1845.
The production duly opened in Paris in 1875, but it wasn’t particularly well received. Audiences were apparently shocked at the obsession and violence conveyed in the storyline, and although it initially ran to more performances than any of Bizet’s previous works, the influence of the criticism was significant. Nevertheless, it was still running some three months later, when Bizet died at the age of 36. It wasn’t long, though, before the opera opened in Vienna to great acclaim, with subsequent and very successful performances around the world. Sadly, Bizet wasn’t to know that his work had become so popular.
Carmen is usually associated with a vision of 19th century Seville, of Spanish señoritas in swirling skirts, flicking their fans, but Bieito – well known for his radical reinterpretations of classic works – set his opera in Ceuta, the autonomous Spanish city situated at the tip of North Africa, and brought it forward in time to the post-Franco Spain of the 1970s. Interestingly, this version is considered to be closer to the setting of the original Mérimée novel than the adaption by Bizet and his librettists.
Acknowledged as one of the most sought after opera and theatre directors of his generation, Calixto Bieito – who describes his Carmen as “intuitive, earthy, passionate, melancholy, sensitive …. living in a dangerous and violent society” – has previously directed for ENO productions of Don Giovanni , A Masked Ball, Fidelio and The Force of Destiny.
The role of the defiant, seductive and bewitching Carmen is sung by Lithuanian mezzo-soprano Justina Gringytė, who has previously appeared in this role for Scottish Opera, at Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Teatro National São Carlos in Lisbon, Lithuanian National Opera and Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet. Major opera houses in which Ms Gringytė has also appeared include the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Teatro Real Madrid and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and this season sees her return to Lithuanian National Opera as Carmen, to Korean National Opera as Hänsel in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, and to Scottish Opera in her role debut of Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.
In 2016, Ms Gringytė launched a charity foundation in her name, in aid of young musicians. “To be a talented musician is a gift,” she says, “but to develop that talent requires dedication, discipline and funds. This is why I was compelled to create this foundation; so that musically gifted children can be assisted financially to further their education and fulfil their potential.”
American tenor Sean Pannikar – an alumnus of San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellowship – makes his house debut as Don José in this ENO production of Carmen. Opera News writes of Mr Pannikar: “His voice is unassailable—firm, sturdy and clear, and he employs it with maximum dramatic versatility”. He has a number of engagements with the Metropolitan Opera to his credit, including the company premiere of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, a new production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Mr Pannikar has also appeared at Washington National Opera, in Francesca Zambello’s La Bohème at the Royal Albert Hall, at Cincinnati Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Santa Fe Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival, and in symphonic performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Soprano Nardus Williams makes her role and house debut as Micaëla in this production of Carmen. Ms Williams won a Kiri Te Kanawa Scholarship whilst training at the International Opera School at the Royal College of Music, before joining the Houston Opera Studio for the 2018-19 season. A former Jerwood Young Artist at Glyndebourne, she appeared as Adina in L’elisir d’amore with the Glyndebourne Tour in November 2019. With a “superbly controlled, sensuous soprano which has sheen and shimmer as well as real focus of tone” (Opera Today), Ms Williams will appear as Countess Almaviva in ENO’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in March, and as Donna Anna in his Don Giovanni for Nevill Holt Opera this summer.
The role of Escamillo is sung by British bass-baritone Ashley Riches. A former member of the King’s College Choir at Cambridge, and a former member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, Mr Riches has subsequently appeared with the Royal Opera, Opera National de Lorraine, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Gabrieli Consort and the Philharmonia Orchestra, with some of the world’s finest conductors, including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Robin Ticciatti, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Simon Rattle, Christian Curnyn and Sir Roger Norrington.
Tenor David Butt Phillip will sing the role of Don José for two performances towards the end of Carmen’s run. Recent role debuts include appearances at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Glyndebourne, Teatro Real Madrid, Opéra de Lille, Opera North and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. His current season includes appearances at Wiener Staatsoper, Staatsoper Berlin, Opera Australia, the Metropolitan Opera and returns to the Royal Opera House, Teatro Real and Glyndebourne.
Also appearing are ENO Harewood Artists Samantha Price, Matthew Durkan and Alex Otterburn.
Leading these performances of Carmen is ENO Mackerras Fellow, Valentina Peleggi, conducting her first main house production at ENO. Principal Conductor of the OSESP Choir São Paulo, Guest Music Director at Theatro São Pedro in São Paulo – where she was voted Best Opera Conductor in Brazil 2019 by Movimento magazine – Honorary Conductor at Coro Universitario di Firenze and an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, Ms Peleggi was Resident Conductor of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra from 2016 – 2018, and Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the orchestra’s professional chorus from 2017 – 2019.
This co-production with Den Norske Opera and Ballet is sung in English, with English subtitles, and runs at the London Coliseum until 27th February, alternating with Barbora Horáková’s production of Guiseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller. For further information and tickets, visit the English National Opera website.
Information sourced from:
English National Opera programme notes