Walking into the auditorium for Dutch National Opera’s revival of Robert Carsen’s 2009 production of Carmen there was much bustling as people claimed their seats. Glancing towards the stage gave the appearance of ‘theatre in the round’ with a wall of red plastic seating where other audience members seemed to be taking their seats. But this was not so. On closer inspection the staged audience was uniformly dressed in pastel 1950s-style costumes, with men wearing the same cloth caps. They too were waiting as keenly as us for Carmen to begin. This was the first unseating of us as a conventional opera audience attending a conventional performance. Let the game begin. 

Dutch National Opera Chorus
© Dutch National Opera | Bart Grietens

Describing Carsen’s production, it is difficult to annotate precisely how each dramatic event unfolds because the theatrical mechanism by which the narrative evolves overtime is cumulative. Entering the theatre, capitulated into being joint audience members with the opera chorus, is just the start of the smoke and mirrors. Blocks of choreographed cast members populate the set, a moving crowd interwoven and blended with key narrative focal points. Carsen’s direction subverts more usual and simple operatic exposition of arias presented front and central to the audience. Of course, this does still happen, and when it does it provides stark relief from the choreographed rabble. So, the intensity arising within these key moments of focus directs our audience gaze even more intently on the central, unfolding dramatic narrative. 

Carmen, Act 4
© Dutch National Opera | Bart Grietens

Creating additional texture, in the form of tobacco girls singing au secours clambering down and across the red seat staging to meet the soldiers waiting on stage, or in the 350-strong on-stage “audience” that joins with us, the true audience, waving white kerchiefs in the final act completing the formation of the notorious bullfighting ring where Carmen meets her end; these moments of innovative direction sift down into us, across the opera’s duration, creating a meta-texture where the feel of bordello, or streets filled with the expectancy of soldiers and tobacco girls walking out on a summer night, are viscerally present. 

J'Nai Bridges (Carmen)
© Dutch National Opera | Bart Grietens

J’Nai Bridges inhabited the role of Carmen utterly, exhibiting a natural presence on stage portraying the interior workings of Carmen’s complex character with ease. Whether swigging beer from a bottle, smoking, or simply just present on stage, our attention was automatically drawn to where she was. As a focal counterpoint to the Spanish horde, she sang almost gutturally in her folk-like intoning for the “la-la-la” sections of various arias. Similar in vein to Cathy Berberian in Luciano Berio’s Folksongs, the inflection in vocality marked her out as different to the other characters, audibly with gypsy roots, someone who is comfortable in her own skin. Integral to conveying a naturalistic Carmen, faithful to her understanding, as Bridges stated in a recent interview, of Bizet’s “Carmen as a sensuous power-woman, who knows what she wants and means what she says”. Rich chest voice coloration was another tool employed, creating Bridges’ unique vocal stamp on this complex character.

J'Nai Bridges (Carmen) and Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Don José)
© Dutch National Opera | Bart Grietens

Guatemalan soprano Adriana González delighted each time as Micaëla when beseeching Don José (Stanislas de Barbeyrac) to retreat to her more comfortable and safer shores, simultaneously to be nearer to his mother. Both Don José and baritone Escamillo (Lukasz Goliński) were adroitly cast in their roles as competitors for Carmen’s enduring gaze.

Under Jordan de Souza’s baton the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra created sweet and lyrical moments of tenderness. Choreographed direction of both the Dutch National Opera Chorus and New Amsterdam Children’s Choir was both fun and precisely characterised, adding to a wholly persuasive textured rendition – a wondrous spectacle, a starkly innovative approach – of one of the most notorious operas in the repertoire.