Spanish director and operatic enfant terrible Calixto Bieito’s production of Georges Bizet's Carmen must by now be one of the most well-travelled opera productions around. First put on at the 1999 Peralada Festival in northern Catalonia, it has since travelled across Europe and America, marking the director’s North American opera debut last year. Since 2015, it’s been in the repertory at the National Norwegian Opera in Oslo and now, with its 20th anniversary fast approaching, it’s back for its second revival. Although the production is filled with Bieito’s trademark intense dramatics served with more than a sprinkling of violence, it seems to be getting creaky with age, not as fresh as it seemed 18 years ago.

Evan Bowers (Don José) and Katarina Bradić (Carmen) © Erik Berg
Evan Bowers (Don José) and Katarina Bradić (Carmen)
© Erik Berg

Moving his Carmen away from Seville and the Andalusian heartland, Bieito leaves behind castanets and flamenco for a Spanish exclave in North Africa, on the Moroccan border. It is a world inhabited by soldiers and smugglers, defined by male lust and aggression. Still, the masculinity presented by Bieito and revival director Victoria Bomann-Larsen borders on caricature, with almost cartoonishly chiselled male extras, who, along with the male chorus engage in some spectacularly heavy breathing the moment a woman walks on stage. Only in the brief ballet entr’acte before Act 3 is male vulnerability explicitly shown at all: a naked soldier pretending to be a matador, rehearsing before a bullfight.

Bieito’s Carmen is a Carmen that has been cut and streamlined until only the most crucial parts of the plot remain, nary a line of dialogue in sight; this is Carmen with “no bullshit”, to quote the director. As in many of his later productions, Bieito shows a penchant for cutting away the flabbier parts of a drama until he is left with an intensely dramatic skeleton. Unfortunately, this zealotry in the quest for dramatic intensity has the director happily hacking away at just a little too much connective tissue, leaving too little story to carry the opera.

<i>Carmen</i> Act 2 © Erik Berg
Carmen Act 2
© Erik Berg

Vocally, the performance was a mixed bag. As the title heroine, Katarina Bradić proved a force of nature, her lower register darkly alluring and opening up to a thrilling top. Exciting though her singing was, Bradić dipped down into her chest register only occasionally to imbue the most dramatic moments of the opera with an additional sense of danger. Whenever she was on-stage, she was fully in control, with purpose behind every move. Her steely resolve in the final scene was thrilling, even though the dramatic limpness of Evan Bowers’ Don José somewhat lessened the impact.

While Bowers’ Don José sounded handsome enough, his sizeable tenor sounded strained at the very top. In addition, Bowers’ struggled to get to grips with the French language, especially in what little dialogue had not been excised by the director. Dramatically, he was surprisingly inert, walking around with an expression of slight consternation no matter the situation. This was especially jarring in the scene where Bowers’ sluggish Don José was supposed to be chasing the considerably more nimble Escamillo of Zachary Nelson. Nelson made a dashing impression as Escamillo, although his bottom range was lacking in power and the top was rather unfocussed and loud.

Natalia Tanasii (Micaëla) © Erik Berg
Natalia Tanasii (Micaëla)
© Erik Berg

Natalia Tanasii sang Micaëla with a lovely, silvery tone, cutting effortlessly through the orchestra. However, like Bowers, she struggle with her French, so while her wonderfully gleaming top register seemed indefatigable, she ended up chopping up words into individual syllables with little sense of line. The male chorus also struggled with their French, especially to begin with, opening the opera with not only suspect diction, but also some peculiar intonation, whilst the female chorus fared better in their first number, singing with a beautifully delicate sound. 

Conductor Eun Sun Kim, one of three conductors sharing the revival’s many performances, set off the Prélude at a dizzying pace, the orchestra making a distinctly robust sound. While the orchestra playing was fine overall, the many wind solos were variable. The bassoons in the first entr’acte sounded as if they had something stuck in their throats, and the horn solos in Micaëla’s aria “Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante” proved rather tumultuous.

In Bieito’s Carmen, despite the tragic ending, the title character comes out on top. Even with uneven singing and some rocky moments in the orchestra, Katarina Bradić’s electrifying portrayal of Bizet’s tragic heroine is a must-see.