One aggressive bump ’n’ grind movement might look suitably brutal and randy on stage. Twenty bumps ’n’ grinds look like desperation.
It’s the sort of flaw that often occurs in the work of director Calixto Bieito, who now has a production of “Carmen” at English National Opera.
The chorus violence never really looks like violence, nor the lust like real sex. However hard the massed singers try to channel their inner Tarantinos, it’s still just a dutiful grind, bump, grind, bump. Makes you think of a car lurching along on a flat tire.
That’s the gripe out of the way. There are plenty of detailed positives to outweigh the negatives in his staging of “Carmen.” They’re so positive, it’s actually a good show.
First among the pluses is Romanian mezzo Ruxandra Donose in the title role. She has a caressing, velvety-smooth voice, and a way of harnessing her stage energy to a point of stillness that makes her mesmerizing. If men want her, they have to go to her.
There’s an enigmatic smile she does too, full of infuriating and secret self-confidence, which hits the button every time. It surely puts her in the front rank of Carmens.
American tenor Adam Diegel (Don Jose) has a nice line in emotional immaturity. One minute he’s glad to see his old flame Micaela; the next he’s disgusted with his own vulnerability and pushing her away. He’s never less than watchable, even if his voice lacks stability.
Bieito draws meaty performances full of detail and honesty out of them. This Carmen and Jose feel like flesh-and-blood people, in a way that the chorus don’t quite manage.
The setting is modern, without being too specific, and the action all takes place on a dusty surface which is half parade- ground, half bull-ring. The smugglers deal in knock-off microwaves and TVs, and travel in rust-bucket old cars.
Children are exploited, girls cruelly made to flirt for money. It’s a picture of a society living on the edge, where cruelty and violence are never far away.
So what if that cruelty looks as believable as warm snow when the chorus do it? As long as the principals can portray it, the atmosphere is still there.
Micaela (honey-voiced Elizabeth Llewellyn) is presented as a more gutsy creature than usual, who is prepared to fight for her man. With some exciting, and technically assured, conducting from Ryan Wigglesworth, it means that there’s a persuasive core to the staging which has the sort of impact only a good “Carmen” can.
Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1885 farce “The Magistrate,” starring John Lithgow (“3rd Rock from the Sun”), is the National Theatre’s major offering for the Christmas season.
Though it doesn’t quite reach the giddy slapstick heights of “One Man, Two Guvnors,” there are enough laugh-out-loud moments to send you away in a good mood.
The set-up is deliciously neat. When Agatha Poskett (Nancy Carroll) marries again after the death of her first husband, she shaves five years off her age. So she has to shave the same off her son’s age too.
Joshua McGuire is amusingly bouncy as the bumptious little Fauntleroy who dresses like a 14-year-old, and who likes to gamble, smoke and drink. When he persuades his good-natured stepfather, who happens to be the magistrate of the title (played by Lithgow), to come with him to a dubious hotel for some fun, the plot begins its series of twists and turns.
Those twists and turns are not efficiently handled after the interval. Some of the subplots are so casually dispatched you have to wonder why they were there in the first place. There are some interpolated sub-Gilbert and Sullivan musical numbers which desperately need to be cut too.
There’s still a magnificent scene for Lithgow in which he returns to his courtroom battered, bruised, and covered in sticking plaster, after a night of unfortunate escapades. His description of his misfortunes is comic gold.
The performances are perfectly pitched in a fast-paced, exaggerated fashion, and Timothy Sheader’s direction keeps bubbles fizzing. It looks spectacular too, in a set which marries the bizarre angles of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” with the coziness of a Victorian parlor. It magically folds up, revolves, and pops up from under the stage at various times too.
Not a bad Christmas present from the National.
“Carmen” is at English National Opera. Information: http://www.eno.org or +44-20-7845-9300. “The Magistrate” is in repertory at the National Theatre. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000
What the Stars Mean: ***** Excellent **** Very good *** Average ** Mediocre * Poor (No stars)Worthless
Muse highlights include Mark Beech on music, Ryan Sutton on New York food and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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