Saturday 6 April 2024

Bizet's Carmen at Covent Garden: gritty realism & a reluctance to add any local colour & movement, redeemed by musical performances

Bizet: Carmen - Blaise Malaba, Aighul Akhmetshina - Royal Opera House (Photo: ROH/Camilla Greenwell)
Bizet: Carmen, Act One - Blaise Malaba, Aighul Akhmetshina - Royal Opera House (Photo: ROH/Camilla Greenwell)

Bizet: Carmen; Aigul Akhmetshina, Piortr Beczala, Olga Kulchynska, Kostas Smoriginas, director: Damiano Michieletto, conductor: Antonello Manacorda; Royal Opera
Reviewed 5 April 2024

The new production pairs finely musical performances with a sense of gritty realism and a reluctance to add any local colour and movement.

For all its iconic status and abundance of good tunes, Bizet's Carmen remains something of a challenge for large opera companies. Until relatively recently matters of edition and style were unquestioning, the grand opera version with Ernest Guiraud's recitatives and a setting that was 'traditional 19th-century Spain'. Since then, things have got more complex with a return to using the opera comique version and a wish to avoid the lazy stage-Spanish stereo-types. It is worth emphasising that the Bizet's opera has little Spanish input, composer, librettists and original author were all French men. And whilst the grand opera version is not in Bizet's hand, when the composer died he had already signed the contract with the opera in Vienna, so a grand opera version with recitatives was already on the cards.

For its new production of Bizet's Carmen, a co-production with Teatro Real, Madrid and La Scala, Milan, the Royal Opera House turned to director Damiano Michieletto (who has already had success with his 2015 production of Cav & Pag) with designs by Paolo Fantin (sets) and Carla Teti (costumes), lighting by Alessandro Carletti, and Elisa Zaninotto as dramaturg. Extensively double cast, including two conductors, we caught the opening night on 5 April 2024 with Antonello Manacorda conducting Aigul Akhmetshina as Carmen, Piotr Beczala as Don Jose, Olga Kulchynska as Micaela, Blaise Malaba as Zuniga, Sarah Dufresne as Frasquita, Gabriele Kupsyte as Mercedes, Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo, Pierre Doyen as Dancairo and Vincent Ordonneau as Remendado. 

The matter of casting should be noted, the entire run of the new production (some 16 performances) has perilously few British singers at a time when the Royal Opera is the only major company giving performances in the capital. The production also tries to face both ways, the casting is resolutely international and we saw a Russian Carmen, a Polish Don Jose, a Ukrainian Micaela and Lithuanian Escamillo, yet the version used was the French opera comique one with (highly edited) French dialogue. A laudable intention, but couldn't we have heard a few more Francophone singers? Or how about, shock horror, doing it in English with Anglophone singers, or mix and match?

Bizet: Carmen, Act Two - Piotr Beczala - Royal Opera House (Photo: ROH/Camilla Greenwell)
Bizet: Carmen, Act Two - Piotr Beczala - Royal Opera House (Photo: ROH/Camilla Greenwell)

The programme book was resolutely vague as to the edition of the opera used, no-one was credited. The spoken text was described as after Meilhac, Halévy and Mérimée. What we heard in terms of the score was a largely traditional opera comique version, but there was passages in Act One in particular which suggested that someone had been raiding Fritz Oeser's attic. 

One of the attractions of Carmen is the way the Bizet has melded the traditional opera comique colour with a more dramatic story-line, particularly given the title role agency, she is far more than the conventional operetta bad girl. Yet there are plenty of colourful moments where the music cries out for dance, colour and movement. Michieletto and his designers set their faces resolutely against this, setting the production in a rather bleak Spain of the 1970s or 1980s. In look, it reminded me of early Pedro Almodovar films or other Spanish films from the era such as those of Bigas Luna, but without the emotional skittishness. This was a rather bleak world.

The basic set was a bald, sun-drenched landscape and in each act there was a single building. All four used the revolve, with us seeing outside and inside of the building. And, much credit to designers and production team, the gaps between acts were minimal. For Act One, we were at a shabby police station with lots of locals hanging around (there was a handful of policemen and the remainder of the men were simply locals); there was no formal changing of the guard and the children arrived playing Cowboys and Indians. For Act Two, the nightclub (run by Dancairo) was more a brothel than anything else, with no clientele, tacky in the extreme and without any dancing girls. Carmen's opening number was done on her own in the car park. For Act Three we were at the smugglers' den and for Act Four the bull ring was definitely a rather shabby local affair, the bull fighters did appear but we had no procession.

The result brought fierce intensity to the story, but in the moments where Bizet's music calls out for dance we got next to nothing. For all Aigul Akhmetshina's fine performance, and it was fine indeed, both the Habanera and 'Les tringles des sistres tintaient' had some rather 'vamp till ready' moments in the staging when you longed for a more formal dance element. Instead, Michieletto focused in on the fate element from the music, and whenever this happened in the orchestra the figure of Don Jose's mother occurred on stage. Rather old-fashioned looking, in black complete with mantilla she was rather a fate figure and served to remind both Carmen and Don Jose of the duties. Michieletto sees the plot as Don Jose's struggle between family and freedom; to this end the time line is compressed so that Act Three took place the night after Act Two with Act Four a few days later. Certainly not time enough for Don Jose and Carmen's relationship to come adrift in the traditional way and for Don Jose to get twisted and worked up.

Aigul Akhmetshina made a very musical Carmen, suitably sexy and in Act One displaying a resolute independence. In the Habanera and Seguidille she was stylish and did not push the sexiness too far, whilst 'Les tringles des sistres tintaient' was very much the girls entertaining themselves with fantasies. The card trio in Act Three was fine indeed. This Carmen was presented as a somewhat troubled figure from the start, apt to get stressed and depressed; she flounced off in Act Two so that Beczala's Don Jose sang most of 'La fleur que tu m'avais jetée' to himself. This meant that when the music darkens in Act Three, particularly in the card trio, we were not surprised, nor did Carmen's fatalism in Act Four come as a surprise either. Akhmetshina seemed to be rather channelling Amy Winehouse, but for all her musicality and stylishness, there seemed to be an essential element missing and Akhmetshina did not quite dominate or take control of the stage, nor did her relationship with Piotr Beczala's Don Jose crackle in the way it should. 

Piotr Bczala was a finely dramatic Don Jose, well up to the power demands of the role yet without any tendency to bawl and with a lovely ability to fine his voice down when needed. There were some rough edges to his tone, unsurprising in a singer who has been making a stir with the title role of Wagner's Lohengrin. This Don Jose had a slightly off-centre approach to his relationships though; during his Act One duet with Olga Kulchynska's Micaela, he seemed to spend most of the duet trying not to be intimate her. And, as I mentioned, Baczala's wonderfully intimate account of 'La fleur que tu m'avais jetée' was largely to himself. In Act Three, Baczala's Don Jose seemed to be rather to well balanced and not at the end of his tether, and this continued in Act Four and only at the end did he break. Overall, Baczala seemed to be rather too sensible and well-put together, though this was a musically engaging performance.

Olga Kulchynska was a compelling Micaela, slight and girlish but with an inner core that fuelled her. Shy but making herself go further than necessary, Kulchynska made the Act One duet far more than the pleasant number it can often be and she imbued her performance with innate drama. This continued in Act Three where her finely musical performance was balance by compelling drama.

As Escamillo, Kostas Smoriginas brought musicality and an engaging swagger the role, making him both enjoyable and believable. This Escamillo came over as almost the only likeable character in the opera, secure in his belief in himself and open in his dealings.

The smaller roles were all well taken. Having two Francophone singers as Dancairo and Remendado, Pierre Doyen and Vincent Ordonneau, was a great boon. The two avoided any sense of the comic, but they and Manacorda brought a lightness and pointedness to their music, the scenes with the smugglers in Act Two are some of the most comic opera in the piece and the performance reflected this style in a pointed way. Blaise Malaba was a robust and rather slimy Suniga with Grisha Martirosyan as a musical but untrustworthy side-kick. Sarah Dufresne and Gabriele Kusyte made a lively pairing as Frasquita and Mercedes, bringing a lightness to their musical performance but also really leaning in to the idea of the two being hookers.

In the pit, the orchestra under Antonello Manacorda were on terrific form. In the overture, Manacorda's speeds took no prisoners and throughout he kept the work on a blessedly tight rein, ensuring that it flowed. Unlike some performances, there was never any hint of Act One outstaying its welcome, and thta does happen. Manacorda gave space for the singers in the well-known numbers but without straying into over romanticised territory. There was a sense of steel under the opera comique exterior, and all those comic opera bits in Act Two had a lovely pointed element to them. Frankly, it was Manacorda and the orchestra's contribution that made it for me.

The Royal Opera has invested heavily in this production with 16 performances in the first run, yet Michieletto's decision to go for gritty realism and avoid any sense of engaging local colour might hurt them in the long run. It was noticeable that people left at the interval. Carmen is an opera that attracts audiences who do not go to the opera very often, which is laudable and admirable. But it is also an opera that promises a colourful backdrop to a powerful love tragedy. Here we had no colourful backdrop, no gypsies or dancing and nothing to replace them. For an inexperienced opera goer the resulting production could indeed by off-putting.

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