Remember how Jonathan Miller took Gilbert and Sullivan by the scruff of the neck in 1986 and delivered a black-and-white jazz age Mikado that’s stayed in the Coliseum’s repertoire for thirty years?  Well, Self-styled ‘Gay Jewish Kangaroo’ Aussie director Barrie Kosky may just have given Covent Garden a monochrome miminalist Carmen that will redefine Bizet’s passionate tragedy for a new generation.

The dancing is a-maz-ing.  Otto Pichler‘s choreography carries the show on an ever-cresting wave of invention: the six principal dancers are by turns acrobats, matadors, Charleston champions and same-sex tangoists.

The huge chorus joins in magnificently: sprawling, hand-jiving and commedia dell’arte posturing all over a massive flight of black steps.  Some of their familiar melodies are sung with restraint that comes only from complete musical confidence so they feel completely new, but the singing of the Russian-trained prinicpals isn’t quite what such a stylish production deserves.

Although she acts Carmen extremely well, Anna Goryachova‘s contralto takes time to settle, and Kostas Smoriginas can’t support enough of his low notes to make bullfighter Escamillo plausibly butch.  That’s the only element which stops this being a five-star occasion, and there are two different casts: there’s a French-led crew for the second half of the run.

All the set pieces are intact – the fight outside the tobacco factory, the bandits’ lair, Michaela’s tender appeals to Don Jose – and those stairs remain a steadfast backdrop to them all: proving you don’t need cardboard scenery or castanets or hooped ear-rings to deliver the passion of Andalucia.  Although Carmen’s vocal sidekicks Frasquita and Mercédès do a lot of skirt-swishing, they stop short of actual flamenco.

The gilt and red velvet box of Covent Garden, the austerity of the set, the wit of the production and the clarity of the voiceover narration clash magnificently with the romantic music to make this Carmen a fresh and thrilling evening.  Mint.



until 16 March and streamed live to cinemas on 6 March.