Carmen, composed at a time when Andalusia was an exotic and mysterious place, poses challenges to an opera company: indulge in tacky, clichéd Spanish and gypsy “orientalism”, or try to modernise the show? Director Johanna Garpe had an interesting idea for Royal Swedish Opera: keep the iconography, but use it as such, as a façade, with detachment and irony. So, the story is moved to the modern day and, instead of cigarettes, the factory where Carmen works produces Spanish knick-knacks: bullfighters, flamenco outfits, fans and castanets. These objects, albeit ubiquitous in the story, are not part of any of the characters’ culture, and are viewed as a funny, fake dress-up. Instead of soldiers in a city square, we had warehouse workers and security guards at the factory.

Daniel Johansson (Don José) and Miriam Treichl (Carmen) © Markus Gårder
Daniel Johansson (Don José) and Miriam Treichl (Carmen)
© Markus Gårder

The realisation of this idea was partially successful: the factory environment was credible, and the treatment of Escamillo as an MMA fighter, albeit over the top, perfectly fit the music and the mood. On the other hand, the production resorted to the common device of changing the words in the surtitles to match what was on stage, so that “les soldats” was translated as “the workers”, “le brigadier” became “the foreman” and so on which always seems a cheap trick. As it often happens, irony causes detachment: Carmen becomes disconnected from her character. Everything is sung “ironically”, her habanera a jeering of the men, performed for the women laughing with her. There is often very little movement on stage: the cards scene is still, with the women standing and delivering, barely touching the cards, which gives us no sense of Carmen’s superstition and foresight.

The scene at the beginning of Act 2 landed closer to the target. Instead of meeting at Lilas Pastia’s inn, the women meet at a photo shoot (ostensibly for a tourist brochure), where they wear flamenco gowns and pretend to dance with their castanets. The dancing was crass and anything but flamenco, the women laughing and making fun of the whole situation. It was effective in showing how tacky and ridiculous that iconography is.

Johanna Rudström (Mercédès), Alessio Cacciamani (Escamillo) and Marianne Odencrants (Frasquita) © Markus Gårder
Johanna Rudström (Mercédès), Alessio Cacciamani (Escamillo) and Marianne Odencrants (Frasquita)
© Markus Gårder

Joana Carneiro led the Royal Swedish Orchestra in an energetic, no-nonsense reading of the score, with more attention to the drama than to finding delicate details. The result was exciting: Carneiro drove the action forward with great intensity. The Royal Swedish Chorus, helped by the lack of movement on stage, was precise and enjoyable in the many complex interventions that this opera requires. The performance suffered from several cuts, of which the most unfortunate was the children’s chorus (probably the director’s choice; what would children be doing in a factory?) and (alas!) the wonderful quintet “Quant au douanier, c'est notre affaire”, one of my favourite bits. The French spoken dialogue was stripped down to the bare minimum needed to make sense of the plot, which was a blessing, given the French pronunciation skills of most of the cast.

Miriam Treichl, in the title role, gave life to a mature, self-assured Carmen, fully in control of the men around her, until the last scene. Her voice was warm and deep, with only occasional harshness in the lower register (on the word “bohème” in the habanera, for example), but overall, it was extremely enjoyable. She displayed a great sense of humour and embraced the occasional silly antics in the acting.

Marianne Odencrants (Frasquita), Miriam Treichl (Carmen) and Johanna Rudström (Mercédès) © Markus Gårder
Marianne Odencrants (Frasquita), Miriam Treichl (Carmen) and Johanna Rudström (Mercédès)
© Markus Gårder

Daniel Johansson’s Don José was a vulnerable, lost, desperate man. His Act 1 duet with Micaëla showed some roughness, but his confidence increased as the performance progressed. His flower aria was delicate and moving, and the scene in the third act was perhaps his best moment, where you could hear his passion and desperation. The final scene was also one of the highlights, with both singers engaged in a confrontation which kept us on the edge of our seats. The scene was set on the roof of the arena, with José pushing Carmen off the edge and she (in a video) plummeting down à la Tosca.

Micaëla was the young singer Magdalena Risberg, who charmed the audience with her lyrical, silvery soprano. She seemed the singer most emotionally attached to her character. She was very believable, both in the Act 1 duet, where Don José is annoyed and tired of her, and in the Act 3 aria, where she appeared pregnant.

Escamillo was portrayed as a super-macho MMA athlete (stage name: Toreador) who, in the last scene, fights against his arch-enemy (stage name: The Bull). He took it in stride, roaming the stage in boxer shorts, covered in tattoos, posing as a bodybuilder. His generous bass was perhaps lacking in subtlety, but it was overall perfectly suited to this interpretation.

***11