Carmen is a gypsy woman in Spain who is surrounded by predatory men. Who she is, is born out of this environment.
She finds power and control over the men in town by using her body and sex. But the gypsy men use this for their own needs as well. Total agency is something she has never experienced.
Through this, she yearns for love. But it is hard to know if the love she seeks is the romantic kind or that which simply offers her protection from all the other cruel men in her life.
The English National Opera (ENO) tackles these hefty themes at the Coliseum until 27 February. The beginning of Bizet’s novella is purposely discomforting. You’re thrust into a world of pure toxic masculinity.
Soldiers run wild with lust for Carmen and her fellow factory workers. Corruption is rampant. Even José, the man she falls for, has countless flaws. Still, he seems to be the best option for her to carve out her own safe space.
And Sean Panikkar, who plays José, does a brilliant job at showing the character’s own inner turmoil. He genuinely believes he is the good guy. The one to save Carmen. Nonetheless, he still hits her when they have a fight in Act II. And Carmen sadly puts up with it.
But with a voice and body like Panikkar’s, you could almost forgive her for sticking with him. It’s hard to take your eyes off him, especially as the opera reaches the dramatic conclusion. His performance is nothing short of outstanding.
Two other stellar performances come from Carmen’s partners in crime – Frasquita and Mercédès, played by Ellie Laugharne and Samantha Price respectively.
These two gypsy women throw the much-needed comedy into the mix. Drunkenly hoaxing soldiers to give them money for sex, or at least the promise of it. They make light of their fairly tragic circumstances. As women in this world, they submit to the men around them, while Carmen resists with all she has.
And Carmen, played again by Justina Gringytė commands your attention throughout the entirety. Her booming voice echoes about The Coliseum, never missing a beat. You can’t help but feel for her struggle, even if you don’t empathise with her at first – something we struggled with.
After all, she is this ‘sexual deviant’. It takes time to understand her circumstances and become overwhelmingly mesmerised by her unwavering resilience – which is inevitably her downfall. This world will not allow a woman like Carmen to express agency. She is taught to submit. That is her only choice – that or death.
It is incredible how these themes are still so relevant today, in an era where men still dominate. And the ENO ensemble does a superb job at retelling one of the most famous operas of all time. We only wished the cast didn’t come across so British. But this is the English National opera after all.
Believing that they were all rough and gritty Spanish lower/working class people was sometimes hard to believe. At times, they were a bit too polished and proper. But that’s just about all we could critique of this retelling of Carmen.
Those who know the opera well, will still get a few surprises in how it has been remade for the modern era. Bizet’s staging is transported from the original nineteenth century setting to the tail end of Franco’s regime in the 1970s – a perfect time and place for what unfolds.
And those who have never seen it before will be surprised to hear so many familiar songs. Bizet’s music has been used in films and skits for over a century, weaving its melodies into all of our minds – you’ve probably hummed along to the ‘Toreador Song’ or the ‘Habanera’ but didn’t know where it originated.
The music and themes explored both make Carmen such a very accessible opera. It doesn’t come across as elitist or disconnected from reality – something many people associate with the opera. For beginners, this is for you. You might just become die-hard fans, asking for an ENO membership next Christmas.
The ENO’s Carmen runs at The Coliseum until 27 February.