Bizet: Carmen

Rinat Shaham

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden; 12 June 2010

CarmenTeodor Currentzis, the non-instrumentalist Greek conductor- composer, who during the last few years as Musical Director of the Novosibirks Opera, splendid but totally underfunded, brought it to internationally acceptable standards, where he even had Wozzeck performed, was invited by Gerard Mortier to appear in Europe, and he is likely to make a name for himself, in spite of his somewhat oddly gymnastic conducting technique.

He tried to produce a sound less strident and more kindly to the singers. His style of conducting, imposing on the stage and the pit his own, disturbingly choreographed conception, produced moments of unusual sensitivity, sometimes exceedingly slow and almost stationary lines, sometimes whipped to frenetic speeds, often totally at variance with what went on the stage in the idiosyncratic direction of Philippe Arnaud.

With the orchestra playing almost in view of the audience, his tall figure, dominated the scene as if his choreographic performance was to be, as it were, a substitution for the ballet scenes, that in this production were completely omitted.

The direction was entrusted to Philippe Arlaud. He is a forceful, charismatic, highly articulate and witty person. His experience in stage design, lighting and all the machinery of modern stagecraft, allows him to indulge in the most excessive ' conceptual' and 'Regietheatrical' experiments. safely ignoring often adverse critical appraisal or even less than halfhearted acceptance by the great majority of operalovers.

A onetime assistant and follower of his much admired friend Robert Wilson, at his press conference, he vowed to ' extirpate all that phoney Spanish Kitch of Carmen' And how right he was in this prophecy...

CarmenAt the beginning , the auditorium is in complete darkness, until a single spotlight is directed on what is supposed to be the carcass of a bull, suspended on a rope, descending very slowly from the flygallery, until it reaches the floor. Still during the overture, the curtain rises, not on the familiar sight of a lively square , but on an empty stage, gloomily lit in a blueish semidarkness, with three oldfashioned ventillators slowly churning around. The entire male chorus dressed in greyish slacks and wearing only white underwear vests, are sitting at a long table busily cleaning their rifles and singing lustily, what we always expected in more familiar Carmen performances to be sung by a happy small town crowd watching the change of the guards.

There is no change of guards in Philippe Arlaud's world of Carmen. The excellent chorus, numbering over thirty male and a similar number of female voices, are almost constantly on the stage and if not actually engaged in singing, sitting motionlessly in the even darker background, or line up in front like in a concert performance and deliver. They are all dressed in uniform grey slacks and white underwear vests, and to show that they are soldiers, some wear a small round cap on their heads.

When Micaela arrives to enquire about Don Jose, she is surrounded by the entire chorus, is roughly manhadled by the choristers and thrown to the ground. Through all this time, at the very corner of the stage, a figure similarly dressed, or halfdressed, is sitting in a tiny cell, occasionally appearing to write something on a piece of paper on his knees. If I had not read the lavishly produced programme notes, I would not have realized that this was Don Jose, waiting for his execution.

Then the cigarette factory ladies are shown backstage, also sitting at the long tables, also with their backs to the audience, and dressed in a nondescript greyish uniform, singing away and busying themselves with presumably making cigarettes. When Carmen appears, she wears a similar garment but she quickly removes it and discloses a flamered silky slip, allowing to show her very alluring build. There is absolutely nothing Spanish or Gipsy about her.

The children's chorus, numerous enough to line up and fill the enormous stage from side to side, arrives, dressed in a curious pitch black garment and black headgear, line up facing the audience, without even a hint that what they are supposed to do is to ape the grown up soldiery changing guards. The only person in a uniform is, to parody a Francoist one, Zuniga. He is sitting bored on a chair in front of the stage , reading a paper, orders Don Jose to polish his boots. He treats all the soldiers, including his subordinate officers with contempt and chickanery.

Micaela, when at last meets Don Jose, emerging from his cell, sings movingly. She appears, leading by hand an old lady, who then sits down out of sight of Jose, at the corner of the stage. Of course, we all are supposed to know that she is Jose's mother, appearing only as a figment of the imagination of the audience.

Don Jose is not wearing a uniform to show that he is, or ought to be as in the story, a smart and ambitious underofficer, hoping for rapid promotion. He appears virtually through all the four acts in his grey slacks and his white vest, without any way made up to look at least a bit different from all the other 'soldiers' to be noticed at all by Carmen. Nicolai Schukoff will sing Parsifal in Salzburg in 2013 under Sir Simon Rattle. Rinat Shaham , a young Israeli Mezzo, made a sensational debut as Carmen in Glyndbourne in 2004. As Carmen, she created for herself almost a trademark in an overcrowded field.

Marina Rebeka, an enchanting and crystalclearvoiced Micaela is already engaged in major roles , like Traviata in Hamburg and Vienna. She will sing this role under Lorin Maazel in Valencia, and Donna Anna in the Met. Michael Nagy, another young talent with imposing presence and matching voice, who in a matter of a few years made a name for himself also as a Lieder singer and in difficult contemporary roles, in which his training as a conductor is a great help to him.

Once the fight breaks out in the factory, the entire chorus is again on the stage. Only Carmen is by now dressed in her red silky shift. The woman she is supposed to have slashed a bit on her face, in fact dies and is dragged away. The stage from time to time is turned to be the yard of a prison, by the simple expedient of a grid of white staves descending from the flies. A wide panel, ingeniously used, is sometimes gliding slowly sideways across the stage, allowing behind it rapid entries or exits. Instead of tripping up Jose,one of Carmen's smuggler associates appears at the corner of the stage, and lights a bomb, that explodes and destroys the prison. Carmen is shown, standing on the ruins of the prison, holding Jose's rifle in upstreched arms, and lit in a blinding white light as a revolutionary heroine, like a picture book female Che Guevara.

Lillas Pastia's nighhtclub is the same underlit open space, with the ventillators still churning around. In the background across the entire stage a bridge allows quick entry and exit of the large crowd. Frasquita and Mercedes are made to appear as two sluts, dressed in sundry bits of frumpish garments, sitting on the floor and during the marvellously witty and spiky trio with Carmen, paint their toenails in rythm to go with their part, then shave, still rythmically, under their arms, and in the second verse they go on plucking their eyebrows still in unison and in rhythm. This enchanting scene, although beautifully sung, is debased by this senseless slapstick. Escamillo arrives , just emerging from the crowd, his black uniformed followers just lining up on the bridge in the background.

Escamillo, bravely sung by a young Austrian baritone, cannot yet establish himself as a creditable and irresistible, but shallow braggard. He courts Carmen by feeding her bits of oranges he peels with his dagger, and sings his aria in fine voice, but without a trace of nasty undertones that should so attract a likeminded Carmen. Having sung his aria, he just exits through the crowd and his followers, still lined up on the bridge walk off stage with him. Carmen, inevitably, climbs on a kitchen table to dance for Jose. Such a table seems to have become a standard platform for pretended but explicit sexual encounters in many opera productions (see Netrebko vs Villazon in Manon...).

During this, to me, embarrassing encounter, the clarion call of the trumpet sounding the retreat was barely audible. The act ends with the Dancaire and his underlings lining up and joining arms, rhytmically lifting their legs. This brilliant quintet is reduced to a cheap vaudeville act. The marvellous interlude before the third act was beautifully played by a plangent French Horn and lovingly and persistently shaped by the hands of Currentzis, constantly on the move and in plain view of the audience. The smuggler's camp in the mountains was, this time, realistically presented by large polysterine rocks, and an enormous cactus, reminding some critics of a Petrol Station in Arizona.

Frasquita and Mercedes are again sitting on the floor, and are so drunk this time, that when the smugglers are ordered to move on, they have to be bodily lifted and dragged off stage. backprojection shows a pale moon, sometimes obscured by clouds, but the stage is still so dark, that only singers in front of the stage can be vaguely recognized. When the stage is emptying, the rocks slowly part, a sliding panel with the picture of a saint divides the stage in two halves, and Micaela appears in a blinding white light between the parting rocks, dressed as a snowhite apparition of a saint.

She sings her moving aria beautifully and motionlessly, without ever showing that she is anything else but an apparition. The encounter between Jose and Escamillo , well sung and acrobatically acted , judged by my recollection , contained some passages that I have not heard before, adding some welcome weight to this usually so brief encounter.

Another beautiful orchestral interlude, wilfully shaped by Currentzis' cajoling hands, replaced the crowd assembling in front of the Arena, and the procession of the honoratiores, always giving such a lighthearted and colourful background to the tragic events to follow. Nothing of this kind was allowed to remind one of Carmen as we have known to experience and love it.

We are supposed to be in the very centre of the arena, and Escamillo , having been helped to don his torreador outfit by a single assistant, when left alone, even picks up a handful of sand and lets it flow through his fingers. Instead of the customary ballet scenes to entertain the crowd before entering the Arena, he is performing a lone bullfighting dance, with the usual cape-twirling and swordplay.

While Carmen and Jose are engulfed in their fatal final encounter, and we can hear the crowd celebrating Escamillo's having killed the bull, he staggers on the bridge above the stage, mortally gored, only to collapse in plain view of what is going on at stage level. He is left alone to fight death, still watching the scene below, but dies, while Jose stabs Carmen in the back.

The often used sliding panel glides in and hides them, giving Jose time behind the panel to put on bandages over his eyes, and when the panel slides away, the two soldiers already vaguely shown during the overture, appear again, aiming their rifles at Jose standing over the body of Carmen, and with the two ubiquitous fateful double bangs of the bassdrum, representing the two fatal shots, he collapses and dies.

Thunderous and for the excellent Balthasar-Neumann Chorus and Orchestra, (founded by Thomas Hengelbrock, a respected baroque specialist and scheduled to follow Christoph von Dohnanyi as Director of the Hamburg Radio Orchestra) and the equally hardworking young and ambitious cast, well deserved storm of applause.

For the applause, the stage was fully filled with the especially large Chorus, and Les Petits Chanteurs de Strassbourg. Members of the female chorus were dressed in specially made for the occasion uniform black evening dresses. The male members were this time dressed in something approaching a uniform, and wearing a typical Spanish threecornered headgear, not once shown during the performance before. So, Maitre Arlaud allowed at least a whiff of Spanish breeze to waft on the stage, even if only after the final curtain went down.

By Francis Shelton

Photo credits: Andrea Kremper

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