Barrie Kosky’s new Royal Opera production of Carmen hails from Frankfurt, where it was first seen in June last year. It’s a curious staging, shot through with flashes of brilliance, though by no means cohering into a musical or dramatic whole.
As one might expect, Kosky aspires to postmodern radicalism. He has largely dispensed with Spain, apart from a few flounced frocks and matador uniforms. Don’t expect a tobacco factory or cigarette girls smoking, or indeed anything that smacks of particularly French naturalism. Instead, Kosky pushes towards the trappings of the Broadway musical or the Weimar Republic revue. Katrin Lea Tag’s set is a vast staircase out of Busby Berkeley. The costumes suggest the 1930s. Anna Goryachova’s Carmen is first seen, gamine and androgynous, in a pink toreador’s outfit. Later, her costumes hint at Hollywood or Weimar glamour, with overtones of Dietrich in Sternberg’s Blonde Venus and Louise Brooks as Georg Pabst’s waif-like Lulu in Pandora’s Box.
Kosky’s choreographer for the big show numbers, of which there are many, is Otto Pichler, who has provided cast, chorus and six dancers with sinewy hand-jiving routines, some of which are very camp, though the Chanson Bohème at the start of act two has wonderful loucheness. Kosky’s imagery is often most striking, however, in the more intimate scenes. In act one, Francesco Meli’s José chillingly controls Carmen after her arrest by pulling her around with ropes from the top of the staircase, while she flails at the bottom. Later, his attempts to prevent her walking up it by standing on her train are the prelude to murder.
Kosky plays fast and loose with the score, arguing that Bizet never made a definitive edition of Carmen. He restores a number of passages cut before the 1875 premiere, so Gyula Nagy’s Moralès gets to sing his act-one couplets about fidelity, and Goryachova gives us both the familiar Habanera and the tarantella setting of the same text, which Bizet excised at the insistence of Célestine Galli-Marié, who created the title role. Kosky has also, however, replaced the dialogue with narration, whispered over a sound system by the actor Claude De Demo, and all too frequently proving intrusive.
Musically, meanwhile, things are uneven. Goryachova and Meli are more convincing in the later scenes as their relationship sours, than earlier on when we don’t quite understand what draws them together. Goryachova radiates cool poise and self-assurance. Some of her high notes, however, can be a bit unsteady and vocally she’s at her best being suggestive with Kostas Smoriginas’s Escamillo or heaping scorn on Meli as he becomes too possessive. His singing can be ungainly, very loud or very soft, with little in between.
More consistently successful are Smoriginas and Kristina Mkhitaryan as Micaëla. He makes an attractive, silky voiced Escamillo. Mkhitaryan, with her warm even tone, sounds glorious. In the pit, conductor Jakub Hrůša favours extreme speeds; there’s plenty of panache in the dances and ensembles, though he dawdles over both Micaëla’s duet with José in act one and the Flower Song in act two. The Royal Opera Chorus, though, have a terrific time flinging themselves into the big routines with gusto and glee, and their singing is exceptional.
• At the Royal Opera House, London, until 16 March.