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Carmen by Georges Bizet at London Coliseum | Review

ENO Carmen 2020, ENO Chorus, © Richard Hubert Smith
ENO Carmen 2020, ENO Chorus, © Richard Hubert Smith

Someone famously remarked about a performance of Hamlet that it was full of quotes. Well, I felt the same about Carmen. It’s full of famous tunes and memorable songs. Not surprising as it’s the world’s favourite opera and has been mined by artists, composers, filmmakers, writers, advertising agencies and a hundred others seeking to exploit its riches. Everyone knows a tune from Carmen even if they couldn’t name it. English National Opera is quite rightly engaged in a mission to reach new audiences for opera. Carmen is the perfect entry point and this production is engaging, entertaining and exhilarating. A cross between Romeo and Juliet and Fatal Attraction this production has the lot: smouldering sexuality, visceral violence, lascivious lust, cynical cruelty and the destructive unstoppable power of love.

This production of Carmen has a compelling vision of the Opera. It is seen as a space in which everyone is trapped. It is a circular space from which there is no escape. No matter how hard the protagonists try they are in effect condemned to walk in ever-decreasing circles. This is brilliantly captured in the first scene. Here we see a soldier being punished by running around and around the exercise yard, wearing nothing but his underwear until he drops. This circular image of confinement is iterated repeatedly throughout the performance. It can be the ring Carmen wears, or the bullring where Escamillo swaggers, or the circular line in the sand that marks out the space in which the Don Jose confronts Carmen. It’s a powerful image that gives the production both artistic and dramatic unity. Calixto Bieito’s interpretation, again and again, finds contemporary analogies to make Carmen come alive for us now. To give just one example Mercedes cars replace Gypsy wagons, giving a whole new take on CARmen.

The chorus is excellent throughout, bringing a welcome uplift and surge of energy so that the production is never in danger of sagging. Carmen’s friends Frasquita (Ellie Laugharne) and Mercedes (Samantha Price) are both raunchy in your face don’t mess with me good time girls, all cowboy boots, tattoos and bras stuffed with cash. To use a football analogy both Ellie and Samantha are homegrown players who have come through the ENO academy.

Congratulations to them. Nardus Williams gives an emotionally precise rendition of Micaëla, the girl who loves Don Jose and pleads with him to return home to see his mother. This is a difficult role to play but Nardus gets it just right by avoiding the trap of sentimentality. Ashley Riches excels as Escamillo and is especially good at goading Don Jose. Also, watch out for him doing his morning toreros drills naked!

The heart of Carmen is the relationship between Don Jose the young soldier and the gypsy Carmen. Sean Panikkar is absolutely superb as the besotted young lover. He convinces totally as he moves from naïve young Romeo to enraged jealous Othello. His acting is strong and compelling. His singing is even better. Every word is clearly articulated and emotionally charged. He is every bit as trapped and doomed as Carmen. Justina Gringyte makes for a sexually alluring Carmen. I personally would have preferred her in a black wig. A blonde Carmen I found a bit kitsch. Justina captured Carmen’s zest for life in every move she made. The matter of fact way she removed her knickers and put them back on again, to name but one example of her insouciance. Is she living life to the full? Or does she have a death wish? That is for you to decide.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Carmen is a searing depiction of a woman who craves love, but creates obsession and jealousy based on the infamous novella by Prosper Mérimée.

Creative Team
Valentina Peleggi – Conductor
Calixto Bieito – Director
Jamie Manton – Revival Director
Alfons Flores – Set Designer
Mercè Paloma – Costume Designer
Bruno Poet – Lighting Designer
Christopher Cowell – Translator

Justina Gringytė – Carmen
Sean Panikkar – José
David Butt Philip – José
Ashley Riches – Escamillo
Nardus Williams – Micaëla
Keel Watson – Zuniga
Alex Otterburn – Moralès
Ellie Laugharne – Frasquita
Samantha Price – Mercédès
Matthew Durkan – Dancairo
John Findon – Remendado

Georges Bizet

She creates a hunger in men.
But will it now consume her?
Running Time: 2hrs 50mins
Booking to 27th February 2020


  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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2 thoughts on “Carmen by Georges Bizet at London Coliseum | Review”

  1. I am new to Opera and have only been studying it for 2 years. My first exposier was on AMGT in the US.when I saw the Opera/crossover singing of tenors Fernando, Sean Panikkar, Josh they were called Forte Tenors. It seems as though Sean Panikkar was an experienced Opera Star. Now that he has made his first debut in London at the ENO, we know he will be a mighty force for you to enjoy. In Carmen, he plays Jose. He was incredible in all the Operas he did. I enjoyed your article. Thank you.

  2. I took my daughter and two of her 15-yr old friends to this, their first opera – and they went for free, through ENOs fabulous and forward-looking policy of offering free tickets for under 18s. And boy, did they love it! The lust and passion, the naughtiness and nastiness, all conveyed through stunning sets, powerful performances – including the chorus – and brilliant orchestral playing.

    From the casual racism against gypsies to the gasps as Carmen’s sidekicks fellatio their fellas – all to Bizet’s thumping music – my girls were hooked!

    Thank you ENO, you’re doing a great job.

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