If you saw the header ‘Opera Review’ and thought ‘not for me’, stick with us for a moment. We’ve always thought Carmen was the crossover vehicle for people who don’t think they like opera: it has lots of recognisable songs, an easy-to-follow story and it’s a landmark piece of social propaganda since, although written in 1875 and set in testosterone-crazed Andalucia, it’s the central female character who dominates the macho men and makes all the decisions on which the plot pivots.

She’s a shoeless and footloose gypsy girl for whom the rules of attraction operate in reverse: come on to her and she’ll reject you, ignore her and she’s all over you like prickly heat on the Costa del Sol. She charms innocent soldier Don Jose into desertion and crime to earn her affection, but when she dumps him for a more glamorous bullfighter, he kills her in a fit of jealous rage.

Traditionally, Carmen is staged with a skipload of fringed shawls, lace mantillas, fans and roses in the teeth and we were excited to hear that ‘bad boy’ Catalan director Calixto Bielto had decided to ditch these clichés in favour of an update to the last days of General Franco, which well suits the lawlessness of Carmen’s gypsy band here seen as cross-border smugglers of alcohol, tobacco and white goods. Hints at organised crime and child prostitution give it a darker tinge, too.

The crowd control (cast of over 60) and staging are truly impressive, the military brutalism highlighted from the outset with a muscular squaddie in Y-fronts and boots pounding punishment laps, but we were slightly less captivated by the leads. On paper, mezzo Ruxandra Donose ought to be the ideal gypsy with her natural dark hair and Romanian colouring, but here she’s a rather forced blonde. She’s also pushing fifty which made her sexual machinations seem more calculating, and in the song where she and her mates tell fortunes with cards, heightened the tension of ‘who will I marry, and when’ so we warmed to the idea that this predatory feline is more cougar than panther.

Up-and-coming American tenor Adam Diegel also felt a bit underpowered as Don Jose but Carmen’s two sidekicks, played by Rhian Lois and Madeleine Shaw, were straight out of ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ and delivered both strong characterisation and vocal energy. Star turn of the night, though, is undoubted Coliseum favourite Elizabeth Llewellyn, the glorious British Jamaican soprano whose superbly-sung Micaela, Jose’s childhood sweetheart from his home village, was transformational – upgrading her from timid peasant girl to another self-determining woman.  Llewellyn’s brilliance made you wish, for a moment, that sopranos could play Carmen.

The orchestra is tremendous, with sensitive, well-paced conducting by Ryan Wigglesworth, and hopefully this amazing staging will be in ENO’s repertoire for many years to come.

Carmen continues in repertoire at the Coliseum until 9 December with tickets from £21 to £99. See the Coliseum website for more information. JohnnyFox received tickets, programme and hospitality from the press team at English National Opera.

Londonist Originally published on Londonist