Carmen is one of the most frequently performed operas in the world, and with such a variety of interpretations out there it is always difficult to come up with a new one which is simultaneously inventive and effective. Perhaps this is why Bayerische Staatsoper’s current production, alongside the production at the Royal Opera House in London, opts for such traditional staging, but does so which such quality that whatever lack of originality there might be is immaterial.

© Wilfried Hösl
© Wilfried Hösl

From the moment the curtain rises we are transported to the world of early 19th century Seville, thanks to the simple but wonderful sets and costumes of designer Enrico Job. The chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper, with their flawless French accents and richly toned voices, give an effective portrayal of the soldiers, peasants and cigarette girls. Aga Mikolaj, is the very image of the naïve, virginal Micaëla, in search of her sweetheart, the soldier, Don José. Mikolaj is not only an excellent actress, but her voice is exquisite and for me she was one of the highlights of the show. Sadly, the soldier, Moralès, is not so strongly portrayed by Nikolay Borchev, who was not at ease with either his character or the French libretto.

Vasselina Kasarova’s first appearance as Carmen was also somewhat disappointing, her difficult opening phrases falling flat both in pitch and tone. However, when it came to the famous Habañera she overcame her intonation issues and gave as playful and sensual rendition with her rich and sometimes erotically chesty mezzo-soprano voice. In the following scene her Seguidilla was also finely sung, with a lithe lightness in the voice, which could have belonged to a different singer, showing the character’s manipulative role-playing. As Gale Martin has already said, Carmen is a difficult character to like, but Kasarova’s Carmen is different to most others. Unlike the cold-hearted woman many are used to, here we see a more vulnerable Carmen, whose hard-edged exterior is at odds with her being, making her seem somewhat distant. It’s still difficult to like this Carmen, but it’s not so difficult to sympathise with her; a strong women trying to make her way in a man’s world the only way she feels she can.

American tenor Brandon Jovanovich is one of the stars of the production, with a movingly tragic interpretation of Don José. Not only is his voice unerringly beautiful, with native sounding French, but his acting is thoughtful and engaging. The letter scene between him and Micaëla was incredibly well sung by both partners, and for me was one of the most moving scenes of the opera, while his Act II aria was the most poignant and spine-tingling I’ve ever heard, either live or on disc.

As Escamillo Gerald Finley, like Kasarova, seemed to take a few moments to warm into the role, both vocally and dramatically, but once there his Torreador’s song is as arrogant as one could hope for, while his Act IV duet with Carmen was masculine and sensuous. With roles such as Robert Oppenheimer (Doctor Atomic) and Eugene Onegin, sitting alongside Escamillo in his repertoire, Finley surely must be one of the most dramatically versatile baritones working at the moment.

From the first notes of the overture to the last notes of the final scene the orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper played with both heartfelt emotion and finesse, bringing the whole of Bizet’s evocative score to life. Dan Ettinger’s conducting is always carefully paced and with great emotional depth and a sensitivity to the singers, but his tempi are sometimes a little too fast to allow the orchestral music to really sing, the famous flute and harp entr’acte feeling particularly flighty.

Overall this is an incredibly enjoyable production, both musically and dramatically, and a great way to either get to know the opera, or to fall in love with it all over again. Carmen is such an exciting work that it doesn’t need elaborate reworking, just a thought-through presentation, and that’s just what this production does.