At the beginning of July, Londoners were treated to an exciting evening in Spain, courtesy of the Royal Opera House. The prestigious arts organisation broadcast their performance of Carmen for free at outdoor venues around the city – and across the UK. The famous opera with music by French composer Georges Bizet premiered in 1875, and the ROH’s latest rendition is distinctly modern, as directed by Barrie Kosky. His unique take on the opera has proven controversial; but dance fans rejoice, Kosky’s Carmen is markedly dance-y.

This year Carmen was a part of the Royal Opera House BP Big Screens programme,
which screens complimentary ROH performances each summer.

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

The Opera Carmen in a Nutshell

Placing Carmen in a nutshell is probably as taboo as “[putting] Baby in the corner,” but here is the opera action in a simplified summary.

The story takes place in Seville, where we meet Carmen. She’s a bold, tempestuous temptress (think Regina George a few centuries ago), who seduces her prison guard, Don José. Against his better judgment he sets Carmen free, then serves time in jail for having let her escape. Unfortunately, his time in the ‘icebox’ doesn’t cool off his hots for Carmen.

Don José goes to see Carmen immediately after his release; and he becomes embroiled in an illegal smuggling scheme with Carmen [& Co]. Whilst hiding out in the mountains, Don José meets Escamillo – the bullfighter, who is equally enchanted with Carmen. Don José tells Escamillo to step off, but the toreador merrily invites everyone to see his next match.

Back in Seville, Carmen and Escamillo declare their love for each other; and during the bull fight, heartbroken Don José begs Carmen to take him back. When Carmen unabashedly rejects Don José, [even tempting him to kill her in Kosky’s version], he stabs his ex-lover. And that’s the end of the infuriating, enigmatic, yet incredibly magnetic Carmencita.

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

Barrie Kosky’s Modern Carmen with the Royal Opera

Kosky intentionally places Carmen in an ambiguous theatrical space: a well-lit set of bleachers. It’s austere – and quite the opposite of lavish opera sets, but stripping back the set serves to highlight the performance. It also makes the staging, which illustrates power dynamics, all the more obvious. The long string, binding Carmen’s arms as she wheedles with Don Jose to free her is particularly striking.  

And Kosky doesn’t just block characters on the stage; he allows them to dance. A man handsprings up from a seated position for a short solo, then lazily steps into a double back attitude turn. The female gypsies carefully sway their hips in Lillas Pastia’s tavern bar, flourishing their skirts, twisting their wrists and stomping like flamenco dancers. A troupe of men announces the bullfight, waving vibrant flags like a colour guard troupe.

This version of Carmen, set on the Royal Opera House, presents an intriguing blend of styles and dashes of humour. However, some of the elements still seem overdone. Throwing Carmen into a giant gorilla suit, which she strips off as she famously trills ‘Love is a wild bird that can’t be tamed’ is a little much. (Yes, she is animalistic. We get it.) The exaggerated pantomime of Carmen’s two lady comrades gets a little tiresome in the second half, and introducing vogueing and a kick line to the toreadors’ dance is amusing, but it doesn’t sit particularly well with the rest of the production.

Still, points to Kosky for being creative and pushing the boundaries of opera performance. His rendition of Carmen was (and is) quite divisive; and it’s great to keep conversations on the arts alive.

Star Rating:

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

If You Go to Kosky’s Carmen at ROH

Although it’s too late to catch Carmen for free with summertime BP Big Screens, you can still see Barrie Kosky’s modern opera at the Royal Opera House.

Show Dates: Showings of Carmen at the Royal Opera House continue until 20 July, 2019.

Show Times: Evenings at 7.30pm | Matineés at noon

Price: £35 – £200

Theatre: The Royal Opera House

Address: Bow St, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD

Nearest tube station(s): Covent Garden, Holborn, Temple

Box office phone number: +44 2073 044000

You can also view upcoming shows and book tickets through their website:

Did you see the divisive show? And, if so, was it your cup of tea? Tell us what you thought about Kosky’s opera below!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *