The packed hall at the Opéra de Bastille was in for a particularly interesting evening as they arrived for the Opéra National de Paris’ newest production of Bizet’s Carmen. This is an important event that brings out both the regular opera-goers and Carmen lovers, and those curious enough to buy a ticket to see the company’s latest creation. Although this is one of the most performed operas, filling halls with astounding consistency, it has been a whole decade since Carmen last revealed her charms on the stage of the Opéra National de Paris. This was therefore a production awaited with great anticipation.
As the lights dimmed, we were informed that tenor Nikolai Schukoff, singing the role of Don José, had been very ill recently but would still be performing. I was glad to see Philippe Jordan, musical director of the Paris Opera, back at the helm of his orchestra, and even more cheerful after a wonderful overture. The orchestra performed the famous opening melodies with a bouncy Latin spirit and undeniable excitement.
It is here, however, as the curtain was raised, that my hopes were unfortunately somewhat dashed. Whilst a lavish set made for a great first impression, the costumes and overall design made the new production’s message immediately clear for all to see: this is not 19th-century Spain. Full of flares, leather jackets, miniskirts, bright colours and PVC heels, this was quite clearly the 1970s. Set in a post-Franco Spain, a time in which women were finally reaching new heights of social emancipation and respect, this is unfamiliar ground for an otherwise familiar opera: Carmen is not in Kansas any more.
Whilst the recipe itself is not flawed in its idea and potential, the execution unfortunately was. Surrounded by equally provocatively dressed cigarette-factory girls, Carmen is lost in a sea of tight low-cut satin dresses, colourful wigs and debauchery all over the stage. Act II, set in Lillas Pastia’s tavern, has circus performers, nude dancers, and even a drag queen surrounding Carmen as she waits for Don José to return from prison for having allowed her to escape arrest. It is only the sparkling voice of soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci that sets Carmen apart from her surroundings, otherwise somewhat upstaged by the far more intriguing and shocking acts taking place elsewhere. Such a transformation in production and design has ultimately transformed the entire opera itself. A rebellious and forward-thinking woman such as Carmen, surrounded by seemingly already liberated women, loses entirely the sultry indecency and feminine licentiousness that precisely defines Carmen and sets her apart from her contemporaries. The seduction and unbridled sexual tension between Carmen and Don José is turned into mere teenage flirting on a stage filled with flesh, groping, and wild depravity.
It is therefore Don José’s friend and childhood sweetheart Micaëla, sung by soprano Genia Kühmeier, who takes a more central role in this particular production. With such wild sexual antics going on, the seemingly pure and uncorrupted Micaëla is, rather ironically, the true rebel of the story, and Kühmeier’s fantastic singing does nothing but set her apart from the crowds even more. However, the true stars of the show were undoubtedly the choirs (both the adults and the children). On stage during most of the opera, they not only provided the necessary bustling atmosphere but also supported the tension perfectly throughout.
A search for indications of Schukoff’s illness was in vain, as he performed his role superbly, his voice ringing throughout the hall. As Don José descends into love-driven madness, the incessant smile of delirious hope on Schukoff’s face truly captured Don José’s despair as he places a wedding gown on a resigned Carmen, awaiting her death at the hands of her crazed ex-lover.
The alleged thunderous abuse from the audience towards the director Yves Beaunesne (and even slightly towards Antonacci) at the production’s première was thankfully missing at this second performance. It is rare, however, for a choir to receive as much applause from the audience as the main performer; Carmen was yet again lost and upstaged by her surroundings.
An evening of excellent singing on all accounts, matched perfectly by Jordan’s direction of the orchestra, managed to save what would have otherwise been a rather disappointing evening, let down by a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to modernise the opera’s foundations; this particular Carmen was unfortunately not worth the ten-year wait. That said, a small redeeming and interesting feature of this latest production is the use of spoken narrative rather than recitative, faithful to Bizet’s original production. Nonetheless, whilst a mass of humming began as the audience recalled the famous “Toréador” theme upon leaving the hall, one audience member astutely summarised the evening’s performance: “It’s just not Carmen”.