The visitor knows something is afoot when he views the painted show curtain – a decomposing head of an animal – or maybe even a human – with maggots here and there, one eye staring out, the sinewy flesh stripped of all skin, bare bone and cartilage showing in vivid life-like colours. A horror picture for sensitive souls! Curtain up and the next unappetizing picture comes, with Carmen sitting in her red frilly dress on the steps of the bullring, smoking a cigarette, a bull hanging over her. The imagery is clear: Carmen will end up like this bull.

Clémentine Margaine (Carmen) © Marcus Lieberenz
Clémentine Margaine (Carmen)
© Marcus Lieberenz

Norwegian stage director Ole Anders Tandberg places the action on a revolving stage. At times, Erlend Birkeland's round staircase construction is the cigar factory, the mountainous landscape of the contrabandists and, of course, the bullring. Creaking, the set always seems to turn when it can disturb the music most. Tandberg lets the action take place in a fictitious time, in a fictitious place. Together with costume designer Maria Geber, they have come up with some ideas: México is sometimes hinted at with it’s "Day of the Dead" processions, but then male extras in long black women's dresses and elaborate Spanish mantillas with black handbags strut across the stage. Carmen, Mercédès and Frasquita wear identical dresses, in a style even seen nowadays at festival time in Seville. The dignity of a Toreador like Escamillo is ridiculed by his – authentic – bright yellow satin costume, making him into a clown-like figure.

Markus Brück (Escamillo) and Clémentine Margaine (Carmen) © Marcus Lieberenz
Markus Brück (Escamillo) and Clémentine Margaine (Carmen)
© Marcus Lieberenz

In Tandberg’s production, Carmen is the leader of a band of human organ-dealers. To the tune of the soulful Act 3 Intermezzo, a large group of blindfolded and gagged hostages sit on the steps and are silently shot only to be cut up and their usable organs torn out. As a result, the "fortune-telling" trio becomes a parody – kidneys, hearts and whatever other organs may be of use, are played with, trying to divine what their future may bring. This is neither funny nor appetizing in any sense, ethically, musically or dramatically. After this scene, it is not surprising to have Don José tearing out Carmen’s heart and holding it up as a trophy after he stabs her at the end. But then, that’s the way it goes with parodies. Everything is drawn into the grotesque.

Charles Castronovo (Don José) and Clémentine Margaine (Carmen) © Marcus Lieberenz
Charles Castronovo (Don José) and Clémentine Margaine (Carmen)
© Marcus Lieberenz

Fortunately, it is better on the musical side. French mezzo Clémentine Margaine interprets Carmen as a cool, almost arrogant woman who wants to have fun with all men, knowing full well that she will not find happiness. She shows no trace of love or deep feelings. Charles Castronovo, on the other hand, is much more emotionally involved. With his beautiful lyrical tenor he gives credibility to the pitiful figure of Don José. American soprano Heidi Stober is a self-confident Micaëla, with dulcet tones. Her first scene is parodied, the group of soldiers indicates arousal and imminent rape with erected rifles, which Micaëla wards off with feisty movements. In her third act aria, she is the only one who shows any disgust over the dissected corpses lying around. Markus Brück tries his best to bring at least vocal dignity to the character of Escamillo. Tandberg has him cut off the testicles of the dead bull lying on stage and presents them to Carmen as a grand gesture. She accepts them as a testimony of love, plays with them and then gets rid of them by throwing them into the orchestra pit, surely a symbolic sign that her affection for Escamillo will not last.

Jana Kurucová (Mercédès) and Nicole Haslett (Frasquita) © Marcus Lieberenz
Jana Kurucová (Mercédès) and Nicole Haslett (Frasquita)
© Marcus Lieberenz

Ivan Repušić conducts with brisk tempi, clearly and precisely. Every now and then it got a bit too loud, but this production can take it. Just to show that Repušić does care, the music for Micaëla’s aria reflected the core values of love and empathy. Jeremy Bines and Christian Lindhorst ensured that the choir and children's choir of the Deutsche Oper were, as always, very well musically prepared.

For a while in early January, it was doubtful if the Deutsche Oper could come out with this première on time or even at all. Over Christmas, the sprinkler system had accidentally gone off and flooded the stage. Thankfully, the technical departments in conjunction with the artistic staff were able to either restore the functions or implement other solutions in such a way that the visitor cannot notice any constraints resulting from the accident. Only two longish set-adjustment pauses suggest that all is not yet well backstage.

***11