I recently spent an evening of total captivation immersed in Carmen at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. It was the Barrie Kosky production and it’s an opera I’ve always wanted to see performed professionally.

A bit of background, because I have a guilty little secret that relates. I used to be a thespian and tread the boards at our local amateur drama group. There was also an operatic group based at the theatre and I used to go and see their productions. It was there I saw Carmen for the first time and fell in love with the music and passion of Bizet’s best-known opera.

Since then it’s been a dream to see Carmen performed professionally. The dream came true at London’s Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I really don’t know why I left it so long…

Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the Royal Opera House, London©2018-2019 ROH | Photographer: Bill Cooper

The production of Carmen is transferring to the West End’s London Coliseum from 29 January – 27 February 2020. Scroll to the end of this post for information, seat reviews and official tickets.

The Story of Carmen

French composer Georges Bizet wrote Carmen in 1875. Set in Seville, the opera tells the story of enigmatic seductress Carmen and the passionate craving she awakens in soldier Don José. His intended, Micaëla, is a sweet village girl but when Don José meets temptress Carmen he finds it impossible to resist her advances.

Carmen warns Don José that to fall in love with her is dangerous and before long he’s helplessly hooked. Carmen soon loses interest and turns her attentions to celebrity of the moment, flamboyant torero Escamillo. Don José’s ensuing jealousy is his undoing and, ultimately, Carmen’s too.

Read more: Famous Theatres in London

The Main Stage

The production had its UK premier in February 2018. It was held on the ROH main stage, the largest of London’s Victorian theatres. Think a traditional auditorium, red velvet seating, curtains with golden tassels and all trimmed to the hilt in gilt. Boxes line the sides of the auditorium which is overlooked by a beautiful domed ceiling. That’s where the tradition ended.

Main Stage, Royal Opera House, London,

Barrie Kosky’s Carmen

Australian director Barrie Kosky’s production of Carmen is superbly original and offers a fresh perspective on an old favourite. It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. Think contemporary dance, monochrome costume and minimal set. Kosky ditched the Carmen clichés of castanets, gypsy costumes and campfires in an inventive, unpredictable and captivating performance. I couldn’t tear my eyes, or my ears, away for a second.

Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the Royal Opera House, London©2018-2019 ROH | Photographer: Bill Cooper

Carmen – The Cast

The title role of Carmen was beautifully sung by Swiss mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner who stepped in due to illness. You wouldn’t have known. Brian Jadge played Don José with passion, despite suffering from a virus. Eleonora Buratto sang an exquisite Micaëla.

The dialogue has been pared back to a sultry voice-over revealing to the audience the main characters’ deepest thoughts. This gives context and helps with scene setting given there’s no set although I found looking up to the top of the stage to read the translation drew my gaze away from the action.

Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the Royal Opera House, London©2018-2019 ROH | Photographer: Bill Cooper

Carmen Dance

This is an all-singing, all-dancing extremely slick production bursting with energy. I loved the contemporary edge the dance brought. There wasn’t a frenzied gypsy dance or tambourine to be seen. Instead ‘flossing’ toreadors with body-popping tendencies and complicated hand jives kept the cast constantly moving.

The choreography, by Otto Pichler, was mesmerising and gave the performance an added dimension. Six core dancers, three men and three women, were exceptional.

Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the Royal Opera House, London©2018-2019 ROH | Photographer: Bill Cooper

The  excellent orchestra was led by energetic Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson whose pony-tail whipped wildly as she worked the more lively pieces. The slower softer pieces were beautifully played and the music rolled around my mind for days after. I awoke one morning to hear the opening strains of the aria Habanera softly floating around my head. Which was kind of nice.

Carment – The Set and Costumes

The set was simplicity itself. A rake of steps takes up the whole of the stage sliding back when space is needed front of stage although most of the action takes place on the steps. I felt the lack of scenery worked well with excellent lighting to perfectly emphasise the performance.

Costumes were mainly monochrome, not a mantilla in sight and with a thirties vibe. Pops of colour were few including a shocking pink toreador outfit and blood red rose petals. The ‘March of the Toreadors’ displayed a palette of blues and purples with swirling crimson capes. I have no clue why Carmen sang Habanera dressed in a gorilla costume. Answers on a postcard.

Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the Royal Opera House, London©2018-2019 ROH | Photographer: Bill Cooper

ROH Renovations

The Royal Opera House has just emerged from a three year renovation project which has transformed the front of house areas into a new and contemporary gathering place in the heart of London’s Covent Garden.

Royal Opera House, London©2018-2019 ROH | Photographer: Luke Hayes

As well as visiting the ROH for a performance it’s the perfect venue to meet for lunch at the Royal Opera House Restaurant. A backstage tour of the Royal Opera House is something I’d love to do or to attend a short lunchtime recital.

An events programme for all ages with workshops, recitals and opportunities to sing and dance has been launched priced from just £12. An innovative and inexpensive way to learn more about the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet who are both based at the Royal Opera House. I’m going to try an arrange any future London meetings to work around a lunchtime recital.

©2018-2019 ROH | Photographer: Luke Hayes

Aims of the Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House aims to bring exceptional ballet and opera to more people helping them enjoy and engage with these art forms. The Royal Ballet, The Royal Opera and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House bring together the world’s most extraordinary ballet and opera artists in more than 500 performances each year both traditional and newly commissioned. These events thrill, move and excite transporting people to other worlds through music, dance and theatre.

I’m not by any means an aficionado or opera buff but I know what I like and I thoroughly enjoyed my evening and was completely entranced by the production. It’s actually re-ignited my love of opera and I hope to see more performances and some of the lunchtime programmes. If you’re in London during the day it’s a great way to get a small taste of what the Royal Opera House has to offer.

Photography of the production is prohibited so please see credits in image captions where ROH images have been used.

Carmen Tickets and Dates 2020

Carmen is transferring to the West End’s London Coliseum from 29 January – 27 February 2020. Click here for up to date information, seat reviews and official tickets.

Where to Stay in Covent Garden, London

If you need somewhere to stay nearby then check out these Covent Garden hotels and accommodation.

Thank you to The Royal Opera House who kindly invited me to this performance of Carmen.

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Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the Royal Opera House, LondonRoyal Opera House, London, main stage