Here, on the easternmost shore of Lake Constance, an utterly breathtaking set is moored on the Austrian lake. Two 10m high human hands frame the stage with a large log-sized lit “cigarette” and a huge hand of cards; the principals and extras splash around furiously in the water; and a fireworks display is part of the staging. Such are the details that dazzled the audience of almost 5,000 opera fans.

<i>Carmen</i> on the Seebühne © Bregenzer Festspiele | Karl Forster
Carmen on the Seebühne
© Bregenzer Festspiele | Karl Forster

Bregenz is well known for its imaginative staging; I remember well how in Tosca ten years ago, to a great gasp from the audience, Cavaradossi falls dead from his prison cell into the lake from an 8 metre drop. But that trick was a trifle compared to the stunts and athletic achievements in Kasper Holten’s new production of Carmen. Bizet himself had been confident that his opera, the tragic story of a wily gypsy girl who beguiles a hapless corporal, was “all clarity and vivacity, full of colour and melody,” but Bregenz cranks that sensation up to the highest notch. The marauders come in by boat, and those imprisoned try to escape over the upper tips of the playing cards that, set at the back of the stage, one could compare to high alpine peaks.

Es Devlin’s tremendous set itself is broken up by different levels, and hung between two great forearms that emerge from the water. Monumental “playing cards” arch over the huge stage, but can also be converted into individual video screens. They can reflect Carmen as the “Queen of Hearts” for example, when she takes the stage with her Don José, as “Jack of Clubs”, or project old postcard views of Seville, where the opera is set. Alternatively, colourful stage action − such as in the scenes of the fuchsia-coloured dancing dervishes − are intermittently projected, effectively doubling the field of action.

Daniel Johansson (Don José) and Gaëlle Arquez (Carmen) © Bregenzer Festspiele | Karl Forster
Daniel Johansson (Don José) and Gaëlle Arquez (Carmen)
© Bregenzer Festspiele | Karl Forster

On small monitors to the left and right and right of the stage, the audience can follow the members of two configurations neatly housed in the adjoining Festspielhaus: the fine Wiener Symphoniker under Paolo Carignani’s able baton, and the Prague Philharmonic Chorus. Supporting actors mouthed the choir’s voices on stage, while the principal vocalists followed the conductor on four screens, all neatly sealing the notion of music by remote control.

As Carmen, sinuous mezzo Gaëlle Arquez sustained an erotic tension that bewitched her Don José. Her first appearance in denim shorts and loose blouse made her something of a blend of unholy cowgirl and Beate Uhse sex toy, but she sang her provocative habanera on the untameable nature of love in tremendous voice. It was if she’d grown up on a diet of it, and the attending dragoons drooled over her every move. As her lover Don José, Daniel Johansson was entirely beholden, his undying passion for Carmen as palpable as the disturbed jealousy he projected when she took another man.

Daniel Johansson (Don José) and Elena Tsallagova (Micaëla) © Bregenzer Festspiele | Karl Forster
Daniel Johansson (Don José) and Elena Tsallagova (Micaëla)
© Bregenzer Festspiele | Karl Forster

In what, for me, was the most accomplished voice in the alternating cast, Elena Tsallagova sang the kind but modest village maiden, Micaëla. Her character gets the short end of the stick, despite her noble attempts to persuade Don José to return to his mother. Even at great distance from the stage, I could feel her disappointment. As the blustering Escamillo, Scott Hendricks' pompous toreador was indeed meant as a character cliché, but his voice showed little variation, and fell just a hair short of his highest notes in two instances, a disappointment in a score as familiar as his great toreador aria. 

Gaëlle Arquez (Carmen) and Scott Hendricks (Escamillo) © Bregenzer Festspiele | Karl Forster
Gaëlle Arquez (Carmen) and Scott Hendricks (Escamillo)
© Bregenzer Festspiele | Karl Forster

Bregenz continues to be something of an Everyman’s opera event, and the staging, brilliant lighting, and costumes are invariably a feast for the eye. What’s more, a host of details − the lap blankets over knees, sheer polyurethane pelerines donned in case of rain, cheerful buzz of visitors finding their seats, Lake Constance at twilight as a backdrop to the stage − all combine to make the event something of a jolly Volksfest. The die-hard opera aficionado may object to the distance to the singers themselves, or the lack of psychological insight that a small, contained house can more intimately portray. But Bregenz offers a different – and highly commendable – kettle of fish; here, the spectacle itself is king. So if you’re easy with large crowds, curious to see a production pull out all the stops, and ready to explore the most ingenious possibilities of modern theatre and broadcasting, I can only encourage you to head here. 

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