The new production of Bizet’s Carmen at the Royal Opera has received mixed reviews. It shouldn’t have done. They should have been unmitigatedly hostile, indignant, outraged — except that all those reactions would almost certainly have delighted the director, Barrie Kosky. What might please him less is the accusation of tedium, of making what often seems an unsinkable work into a colossal bore. This Carmen lasts for three-and-a-half hours and feels as long as that after the first 20 minutes.
The whole and only set is a stage-wide flight of 16 steep stairs, up and down which the cast has to run at frightening speeds. As Jakub Hrusa, the conductor, dashed into the opening bars, hectic rather than brilliant, one wondered what might be added on-stage. But the Prelude stopped halfway through, and a semi-whispering female voice gave us a couple of introductory sentences. Carmen appeared, dressed as a toreador, and I wondered if we were to see a gender-bending version. She soon disappeared, however, and when she made her second entrance, as marked, she had become a gorilla, so it seemed more likely to be a species-bending affair. She shed that costume, though, and wore a white shirt with black tie for the rest of the interminable Act I. Bizet discarded a fair amount of music in production, but this one reinstates it, so Carmen has two entrance arias. There is no dialogue, either accompanied or spoken, just the occasional intrusion of the disembodied narrator.
Though Carmen is rightly one of the most popular operas, it is a problematic piece, and a producer’s first job is to make it seem coherent. The character of Don José is bewilderingly undercharacterised, while Carmen is certainly all of a piece. But Bizet never gives them a chance to realise whatever their love may be.