On the birthday of ENO itself, We review this latest co-production with Norwegian National Opera, as one of the best we have seen.
You go to the Opera expecting some emotional involvement. What you don’t expect, are the emotions of betrayal, anger, scorn, – from the opening speech by Stuart Murphy, CEO at ENO, even before the performance itself begins.
We live in difficult times. The savage and completely undeserved financial cuts inflicted on ENO by the ACE, have left an audience and global ENO membership shocked and dismayed by the shortsightedness and lack of understanding by government of ENO’s presence in the social delivery of music. It is the first time I have seen and heard ENO Members openly criticise a UK government – and people around nodding and also vocalising their agreement. Apparently some 83,000 supporters signed an online petition for these cuts to be reversed. All of these people have votes, and many have a great deal of money and influence. Hardly a social group that you want to ignore.
You know it is serious, when each audience at this First Night, received a small pink Birthday Card, encouraging us to make a donation of our choice. The largest amount suggested, was some £9,200 pounds sterling. The usher stood over me as she handed me my Card:
“Richard, you put a cross in the box for the amount you want to give – yes, just there; and you sign, just here”. She offers me her pen.
“Right”. I say, a little perplexed.
And so we start. A very aggressive orchestral opening, we are here for a reason, and then Carrie – Ann Williams, making her ENO debut – appears hesitatingly on stage, as Micaela. It is an excellent beginning, she grows into the role as the minutes tick by, and her chemistry with Sean Panikkar as Jose, returning from the same role three years ago, is beautiful, poignant.
There are no weak links here – particularly standout are the close harmonies of Alexandra Oomens as Frasquita, and Niamh O’Sullivan as Mercedes – (Ellie Laugharne will join as Frasquita in later performances, reprising that role from back in 2020).
The melodies just flow, a bit like London buses, another one is just around the corner – but if we have to try to define the secret sauce of this unique production and its difference from earlier versions – it is the subtlety of delivery, at every level – the sudden appearance of “Carmencita” emerging from the single phone box as scenery on stage, – the soldiers emerging hidden in plain sight by clever lighting. There is no need for elaborate scenery here.
And above all the subtlety of Ginger Costa-Jackson, as Carmen, herself making her ENO debut, almost as a reluctant heroine. The growing fascination and inevitability with Jose, and similarly his own – as that chemistry develops, is so convincing even from the get-go. . Her delivery and ability to hold the stage is as good as any I have seen.
This is an opera production that leaves the story telling to its protagonists. In that sense, we are as before, simply voyeurs.
New to the process are the schoolchildren, selected from two local primary schools in London, part of the ENO Engage partnership with St Joseph’s Catholic School and Wendell Primary Schools, as the urchins early in the first Act. It its raw, and trained, and enthusiastic, If anything is to define why people come to ENO – this is probably as good a reason as any. The kids, and you and I, will look back on this performance; we were there .