There must be people who have never seen the world’s most frequently staged opera, Carmen; and for those few, Barrie Kosky’s new production at the Royal Opera House will be unfathomable from the start – when the iconic gypsy diva comes on wearing, for no obvious reason, a gorilla suit.
But for the rest of us, who’ve seen the piece a thousand times and wouldn’t feel too bad about not seeing it again, the virtue of this show is its subversive mischief. It’s an antidote to Carmen rather than the piece itself, replacing the familiar tourism of sunny Spain and castanets with semi-abstract Brechtian cabaret in which the actors act (self-consciously) and dancers dance (relentlessly, and with exuberant high camp). It’s theatre for its own sake. And although the set is nothing much to look at – just a flight of steps that doubles as the seating in a bullring – it’s a joy to watch. Because, for once, you never know what’s going to happen next.
Not everything that Kosky does succeeds. Telling the story with an offstage voice (seductive, French and female like the unseen narrators of Nouvelle Vague films) rather than the usual spoken dialogue or sung recits is interesting but slows the pace. And to end with the “dead” Carmen standing up and shrugging her shoulders, as if to say “What does any of this matter?”, is a mischief too far. If none of this matters, why have we been sitting watching it for three hours?
By and large, though, the perversity of Kosky’s genius is pleasurable as he breaks the rules. His Escamillo, typically a bore, becomes quite human. And his Carmen – sung with curdled Eastern European edge by Anna Goryachova – is androgynously waif-like, more a Lulu than a Latin vamp.
Francesco Meli’s Don José is disappointingly leaden – in contrast to Jakob Hrusa’s conducting, which is light on its feet. And for the record, I can’t explain the gorilla suit but it sure wakes the audience up. Which is a purpose of sorts.
This season the London Philharmonic Orchestra is taking its audience, awake or otherwise, through the lifework of Stravinsky; and last week we heard him as a young man, still writing music in the late-romantic way of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov but about to extend its reach with his first, breakthrough ballet for Diaghilev, The Firebird. At the Festival Hall Vladimir Jurowski conducted the original version of Firebird alongside two early works that lay the ground for it and a little-known piano concerto by Rimsky – all of which nicely summarised how far Stravinsky travelled in a few years. More – much more – to come.
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