Tom Sutcliffe feels things have gotten to a low-ebb

You would think Carmen was a work Covent Garden should do for itself – as it always has. A new production was announced with Mariame Clément directing. But no. The new director of opera Oliver Mears wanted to get weaving immediately. So our new Carmen is a well run-in production borrowed from Frankfurt Opera staged by Australian Barrie Kosky whose work is often genial. I will argue against Kosky this time. But he knows his tricks. Cal McCrystal director of English National Opera’s Iolanthe is a newcomer to opera (except for a forgettable Haydn). He assisted director Nick Hytner with the physical theatre jokes that made Richard Bean’s Goldoni update One Man Two Guvnors a grand money spinner hit. So putting him in charge was a flash idea for new ENO boss Daniel Kramer, equally an operatic novice, faced with the chance to (as he writes in the programme) “curate one operetta in the 2017/18 season” – except this messy sketchy staging doesn’t qualify as even a curate’s egg.

When I was grabbed by the music of Bizet’s Carmen aged four sitting with my father’s mother at the back of the gallery of the King’s Theatre, Southsea in 1947, Carmen in English at Covent Garden (as with the Carl Rosa production I was seeing) had just launched the new opera company there.  Carmen is an extraordinary infectious vehicle with some somewhat less than perfect elements forming its libretto and human landscape. That was why Annabel Arden at the Grange craftily got Meredith Oakes (my wife) to work in two narrators who underlined what its themes amounted to – with quite a bit of new English dialogue plus every note Bizet composed for singing in French. Performance, like life, involves compromises. Even great works may have flaws. I thought these were effective aids to the whole with its musical glories and extraordinary mysterious fatalism. So what’s wrong with Barrie Kosky’s approach?

He has cut all the dialogue, and substituted a female voice over with a slightly jokey text moving the narrative along from a Carmen-like point of view. Instead of any telling sense of location he uses an enormous black flight of steps across most of the stage moving sometimes backwards and forwards to make room for energetic but fairly meaningless male (mostly) dancing at the front. Crowds settle on the steps in various formations but with wearing clothes that evoke the story. When the scenes and dialogues are in French and sung, they are also acted in more or less the conventional way – and Kosky is (when he wants) an extremely accomplished director of performers. So, in spite of not very wonderful singing and average conducting, audience attention is held and what makes Carmen a masterpiece (its music) is honoured by quite a bit of Carmen action.

But Kosky has added in some really feeble bits of music from the first thoughts of Bizet (who died soon after the premiere at the Opera Comique in Paris) and omitted a great deal of the action and context in the first two acts which now go on for ever without getting anywhere much. And this pretentiously intelligent approach by Kosky – which reflects the power he now holds and the way he sees himself after much success in his career – in fact undermines and reduces the power of the central performers (though Micaela’s beautiful torch song in the invisible mountains in the third act keeps its honoured but muddling place). This is a Carmen solution that is too clever by half, much less good than the experience with which the world is familiar, but an approach that no doubt made Kosky seem suitably in line with current German fashion whether he believes in it or not. In fact he is far too theatrical a creature to go along with dramaturgical nonsense unless it suits his purpose – doing his own thing. And since Bizet’s last work has always needed a hand to be able to stagger to its fiercely truthful desperate end, Kosky can feel he was perfectly entitled to try and do his bit.

Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe is a great and very entertaining piece – and the ENO staging suffered from a lack of faith in it shown by warm-ups and prat-falls and a horse dropping its business on stage and other supposedly entertaining extras (McCrystal demonstrating “his comedic talents are second to none” as Kramer wrote). Plus dubious casting – especially the crucial leading role of Strephon which was almost anonymous in the hands of Marcus Farnsworth, though Ellie Laugharne as his Phyllis had a very fetching voice. Direction of chorus work and larger-scale scenes was generally missing though things improved after the interval with numbers involving just a few and accomplished artists (Bens Johnson and McAteer, for instance). Timothy Henty’s conducting was usually too slow and precious, and did not seem to relish the soul of the work. Even the late and much lamented designer Paul Brown was not by any means at his best – unsurprisingly when one read Graham Vick’s moving tribute to him in the programme and could see the nature of the collaboration with a proper director that enabled him to be the very fine artist he was.