The image of the toilet cubicles lingers on but no one can deny the fierce theatricality that shakes up English National Opera whenever Calixto Bieito’s in town. His anarchic Don Giovanni made us reassess the motivations of both sexes in the piece; his flamboyant staging of Verdi’s A Masked Ball was quite simply one of the most exciting evenings to hit the Coliseum stage in a decade. Now comes the world’s most popular opera – Bizet’s Carmen – and a wholesale return to the heat and dust and unbridled passions that drive it.
The softly spoken Spaniard has some strong views on the piece: how the dialogue does nothing for the narrative (he’s cut it entirely); how Don José is plainly bi-polar; how Carmen is not at all the liberated heroine she is so often cut out to be. Bieito has said: “My black humour comes from Cervantes. My surrealism comes from Bunuel. My images come from Goya, and my terror came from being taught by Jesuits.” In his charming broken English Bieito picks up on that last line and reveals how his own fear was turned into something positive and creative. He has a reputation for being provocative but insists that he has no interest in provocation for its own sake. In his own words he “follows his heart”. And his astonishing nose for theatre.