A wonderful Russian mezzo-soprano in the role of Carmen. But a poor new production of this much-loved opera.
Bizet’s Carmen is one of the most famous pieces in the operatic repertoire. According to Operabase, it was the 3rd most performed opera in 2015/16. Not only it is a powerful story based on the book by Prosper Mérimée (and inspired by true events), but the music is so powerful, evocative and memorable. As such, it is one of the most feared operas to undertake by any Director.
This is a new production to the Royal Opera House by Barrie Kosky (last seen Directing Shostakovich’s The Nose at the ROH), which was premiered at the Frankfurt Opera in 2015. At its Premiere in Frankfurt, it did not receive very favourable feedback. However, this did not dissuade the leadership at London’s foremost Operatic venue, now in the youthful hands of the new Opera Director Oliver Mears, from bringing this production to London – in fact it probably encouraged the challenge.
As a fan of the previous lavish production by Francesca Zambello, and having seen the incomparable performance with Anna Caterina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann in the lead roles bringing with them an erotic intensity and with Antonin Pappano conducting, now immortalised on DVD, I was not relishing the idea of seeing a new production. However, I wanted to see it so I could judge for myself.
In this production, the stage is bare, except for a huge staircase. The action is removed from the constrains of place, appearing to be a collection of Carmen’s memories of her life. Barrie chose to dress the action in 1930s France or Germany (and he has claimed it takes the format of a German Revue). Unfortunately, the lack of any formal staging reduces the impact of this usually powerful opera. Furthermore, the huge staircase is an ungainly prop for the stage. Being hollow, it sounded like a hoard of elephants was on stage every time the supporting cast went up and down the stairs – which happened rather frequently in this production, drowning out the beautiful music from the orchestra and the singers. I am surprised someone in the set department did not point this out beforehand.
This production is very long and it feels long. Barrie has chosen to have the spoken dialogue pre recorded. He has also extended it to include more of the Mérimée text. While it is an interesting solution of dealing with large amounts of spoken dialogue in this opera (often poorly performed by the opera singers), the addition of the Mérimée text is unnecessary and feels rather clumsy – there is just too much dialogue. It breaks up the flow of the production and appears to weigh it down. You feel as if you are listening to an audiobook, rather than an opera. The stage directions were included in the dialogue (to contextualise the performance as there was no setting on stage). However, I feel it would be much better to actually show the setting on stage instead.
Barrie seeks to make Carmen the focus of the narrative in this production. He focuses all the action around her and tries to examine the reasons for her actions. Anna Goryachova is sensational as Carmen. She is young, beautiful, alluring, can perform all the dance routines as if she was one of the trained dancers and has an exquisite voice. Unfortunately, she is constrained by the production. With the story being presented retrospectively (perhaps as a series of memories from Carmen’s life or a showcase of specific events) the drama and action sequences are seriously inhibited- themes which are usually at the heart of this opera. There is almost no emotional connection between Carmen and Don Jose when they are onstage together, which says more about the production than their acting ability. For most of their scenes together, they are standing on opposite sides of the stage. It is, therefore, hard for her to convey all the emotion in the music given that there is almost no visible rapport between her and Don Jose. Anna does her best with the production she was given.
This production highlights the limited roles for the other members of the cast. Don Jose is reduced to a mere figure in Carmen’s imagination in this production. Francesco Meli, as Don Jose, has very little to do on stage and barely interacts with Carmen. He improves vocally as the production continues. Michaela is simply a vehicle for two beautiful pieces: a duet with Don Jose in Act 1 and her solo aria in Act 3. However, these are both exquisitely sung by Kristina Mkhitaryan. Kostas Smoriginas tried to entertain us as Escamillo with his rendition of Toreador, but unfortunately he was wearing a ridiculously tight costume for a man of his stature. And his attempt at dancing was lamentable.
Jakub Hrusa conducted the Overture so fast that even the superb Royal Opera House orchestra could barely elicit any emotional feeling from the music – surprising as Bizet’s score usually speaks for itself. It seemed that the pacing was slightly off for most of the evening: at times too fast and at other times too slow.
Barrie has rightly identified that dance is also at the heart of Carmen. Dance flows through Bizet’s musical score and Carmen uses dance as a power with which to bewitch and manipulate the men around. However, in my opinion there is too much dance in this production. Almost every scene is choreographed, and while some of it is extremely fitting, such as the introduction to Act 4, I feel that the dance routines would be more poignant if these sequences were limited to a few key scenes, rather than every scene.
During Carmen’s most famous aria, the Habanera, Barrie chose to dress her in a Gorilla suit. As she appeared at the top of the staircase, she was greeted to loud groans from the audience. She proceeded to slide slowly down the stairs as she undressed seductively out of her costume to reveal a white shirt and black trousers underneath: a rather benign choice of clothing for the rest of this aria. Apparently this scene was inspired by a Marlene Dietrich routine from the film Blood Venus. Aside from being a rather esoteric reference, it did not marry at all with the wonderful music and dialogue of the habanera and just encumbered this pivotal scene. In this production we get to hear a second rendition of the Habanera, using Bizet’s original score for the aria before he changed it, having heard the now famous melody from a short song by a Spanish composer. While it is interesting to hear this original music, and see how it compares to the final version, you can see why Bizet choose to rework this music.
There were some inspiring moments, however. Don Jose, seductively ties up Carmen, using a huge rope. We know how this scene will end, but I loved the way in which the rope, previously tightly binding Carmen’s body, simply drops to the ground as she makes her escape.
The transition from an upbeat, fun, jolly opera to tragedy starts at the moment when Carmen reads her fate in the Tarot cards and sees only Death. This is a crucial scene, which Barrie treats with respect. Carmen is visibly shaken, clearly believing in the power of the cards and the inevitably of her fate.
Another crucial scene is the finale. Unfortunately, I found Carmen’s death in this production to be very underwhelming. It was way too sudden: there was almost no build up to a climatic murderous confrontation. Again, the drama was inhibited by the staging: this time the ridiculously huge dress which Carmen wears. And to make matters worse, at the very end, after Carmen has been killed, she stands up and shrugs to the audience: as if to say, I fooled you. This ruins the drama and disrupts the narrative of the story at the most emotional part of the opera. The emotional ending comes from the fact that she has just been brutally murdered in a crime of passion by her ex-lover. We do not want to see her rise from the dead.
Overall, I thought that the production was very weak. I supported neither its concept nor its execution. This was another example of an operatic production in which style came above substance. At least we had the opportunity to see a wonderful singer in the role of Carmen, but she was constrained by the limits of the production preventing her from soaring.
I understand a Director’s wish to change and reinvent a traditional opera. And sometimes this can be achieved with great success (such as Glyndebourne’s Andalucian production of the Marriage of Figaro by Michael Grandage set in the flower power Seventies, for example), which even allows the story to become more accessible and relevant to modern audiences. However, this approach does not always succeed. And frankly, this approach to opera is not even novel any more. But if one really wanted to renew the story of Carmen, why not move it to 1980s Columbia. The culture has a similar Spanish vibe, and the factory girls usually making cigarettes could instead be in the employment of the Drug cartels. Or perhaps it could be set in 1960s Cuba at the time of the Revolution. Just a thought.
The opera runs until 16 March 2018, with a number of live performances at the cinema.
The RoH Website
Feature Image – Anna Goryachova as Carmen (C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper