Saturday 10 March 2018

Musicological melange: Barrie Kosky's production of Carmen at the Royal Opera

Gaëlle Arquez in Carmen (Frankfurt Opera), 2016 © Frankfurt Opera Photo by Barbara Aumüller
Gaëlle Arquez in Carmen (Frankfurt Opera), 2016 © Frankfurt Opera Photo by Barbara Aumüller
Bizet Carmen; Gaelle Arquez, Andrea Carè, Alexey Markov, Susanna Hurrell, dir: Barrie Kosky, cond: Christopher Willis; Royal Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 Mar 2018 Star rating: 3.0
More a creative entertainment, but with some fine music

The Royal Opera has a varied history with Carmen,  the last three productions (Michael Geliot - 1973, Nuria Espert - 1991, Francesca Zamballo - 2006) have been traditional grand opera, with various approaches to tourist-style Spain as a setting, and not all were well liked. In all of these incarnations, the common thread has so far been that Bizet's original opera comique version of the score barely gets a look in. Rumoured plans for a new production seem to have been cancelled (one wonders what was being planned), and in its stead we have Barrie Kosky's 2016 production originally seen at Frankfurt. And for this new production, Kosky and his team, designer Katrin Lea Tag, lighting Joachim Klein, choreographer Otto Pichler, dramaturg Zsolt Horpácsy, present us with a radical re-working which is less a production of Carmen and more a creative entertainment based on the opera.

We caught the second cast, on Thursday 8 March 2018, which had the big advantage of having French mezzo-soprano Gaelle Arquez in the title role, ably supported by Andrea Carè as Don Jose and Alexey Markov as Escamillo, with Susanna Hurrell as Micaela, David Shipley as Zuniga, Haegee Lee as Frasquita, Adèle Charvet as Mercedes, Pierre Doyen as Dancairo, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as Remendado and Dominic Sedgwick as Morales. Christopher Willis conducted.

Kosky takes a radical approach to Carmen in a production which is almost an exploration of the work's history. He seems to take the view that the opera is well known enough to not need much elaboration of the story. We get the opera comique version, shorn of dialogue and with a spoken narration which presents the story from Carmen's point of view taking material both from the libretto and the original novel. Thus rendered partially mute, the singers act out the story often with little dramatic linkage between the episodes. Kosky brings a vaudeville approach to the staging, and many of the best known items are choreographed to within an inch of their lives. D. thought it looked like 'bad Top of the Pops dancing' and certainly Pichler's choreography seemed to do little for the opera.

Having a spoken narration over the sound system was rather an alienating effect and I wondered why, at least in some of the opening scenes, Arquez could not simply have spoken the words.
It also left Bizet's carefully controlled opera comique effects high and dry. In a proper performance of the original we get a highly instinctive combination of sung arias, sung recitative, melodrama and spoken dialogue. Yet, somehow the 21st century's quest for authenticity in performance rarely reaches this area. Even the 2013 production at the Opera Comique with John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, which was directed by Adrian Noble, stripped the text back to the bare minimum (this production debuted a new critical edition of the opera by Richard Langham Smith, published by Peters). So at Covent Garden we had large stretches of Bizet's underscoring, performed as dumb-show by the cast.

The version of the score used was on based on the new critical edition by Michael Rot which includes all of Bizet's cut material and earlier versions of the music. Certainly a valuable resource, but Rot goes further. The textual history of Bizet's Carmen is complex, made more so by the work's troubled genesis and Bizet's early death, yet Bizet did publish a vocal score which would apparently settle things. But musicologists tend to fall into two groups, those who believe Bizet knew what he was doing and that his final version of Carmen is what he intended, and those for whom Bizet had changes forced upon him by his unruly cast. [For those interested in the subject, I would highly recommend Winton Dean's 1965 essay 'The true Carmen?' reviewing the Fritz Oeser edition of Carmen (available in Dean's Essays in Opera).] Michael Rot comes into the second category, so what we heard was a musicological melange, introducing elements cut by Bizet.

We heard extra music, which is rarely if ever played in the theatre. Couplets for Morales at the beginning of Act One (which were published by Bizet but which slow the action down), the original entrance aria for Carmen which was replaced by the Habanera (and in fact we heard both), the far longer version of Don Jose's Dragon d'Alcala which he sings off stage at the beginning of Act Two, and a rather different ending which is I think the one described by Winton Dean as 'a final apotheosis after the manner of a Palm Court or military band selection'. In some respects this was valuable, we heard music from Bizet's original score which is often traditionally cut such as the full dialogue for Escamillo and Don Jose in Act Three.

But the results of all this was to make the opera very long, 110 minutes for Acts One and Two, 65 minutes Acts Three and Four. Bizet was himself aware of the length problem and many of his last minute changes were cuts, but even so at the premiere the opera played for 174 minutes excluding intervals! Another problem at Covent Garden was that the programme book does not tell us exactly what we were listening to. There was an article by Michael Rot explaining (justifying?) his edition, but no details. The programme book credits the score as being 'adapted by Constantino Carydis (for Frankfurt Opera 2016)' with no explanation of what this work might be, though some passages did indeed sound like pastiche, though that might simply have been the effect of hearing familiar music in new ways.

The wonder was the evening worked, but it did if you viewed it as an entertainment rather than a production of Carmen per se. It helped that in Gaelle Arquez we had a Francophone Carmen with a secure grasp of the essentials, she was sexy, witty and (when the production allowed) dangerous. This was a coherent and well structured performance, and I loved the way she actually sang the music. She was well partnered by Andrea Carè's Don Jose. Without recitative or dialogue he does not get much to work with, but Carè sang with care and intelligence. He has quite a dramatic tang to his tone, and was thrilling when he opened up but was clearly at some pains not to sing like that all the time so I most appreciated the way he brought in head voice and mezza-voce, and the Flower Song was beautifully intimate.

Alexey Markov as Escamillo swaggered well, fitted the toreador's costume creditably and had the notes for the part, what more can you ask. Susannah Hurrell gave a poised and poignant account of Micaela's music, and I hope I get to see her in a more traditional production. Dominic Sedgwick made a dazzling impression with his song and dance number to Morales' Act one couplets. The remainder of the cast gave strong support, and all entered into the production with a will. This was definitely an all singing, all dancing show.

In the pit Christopher Willis kept things moving, and though he lingered in some places, overall the music zipped along.

I was surprised at how much I was entertained by this production, and it was valuable to have heard the items which are never or rarely performed, but it hardly seems a production to be revived regularly and certainly I hope that Covent Garden will be giving us a more traditional production which pays some respect to Bizet's own final thoughts.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Hard hitting, yet transcendent: Janacek's From the House of the Dead at Covent Garden (★★★★) - Opera review
  • My last Duchess: the songs of Grace Williams from Jeremy Huw Williams (★★★½) - CD review
  • Remarkable dialogues - Poulenc's opera at the Guildhall - Opera review
  • Goldilocks translated: The Opera Story's latest production (★★★★) - opera review
  • Contrasting double: Puccini's Il tabarro & Gianni Schicchi from ETO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Beyond an auspicious debut: I chat to French Horn player Ben Goldscheider - interview
  • A return to the world of sleep and dreams: Robert Carsen's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream  (★★★½) - opera review
  • The complete piano works of John McCabe - volume 1 (★★★½) - CD review
  • Handelian celebration with the Foundling Hospital Anthem  (★★★½) - concert review
  • Bach on the piano, Sandro Ivo Bartoli in Bach's smaller pieces (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Well worth crossing the Red Sea for: Rossini's Mosè in Egitto from Chelsea Opera Group (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Music, myth and time: Karen Cargill and the Scottish Ensemble at Kings Place (★★★★½) - concert review
  • A varied career: our interview with violinist Thomas Gould finds him in a thoughtful mood - interview
  • Má vlast: Jiri Belohlavek's last recording with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra - CD review (★★★★)
  • Home

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