Bizet’s Carmen is a cornerstone of the entire operatic repertoire. Likewise, the Deutsche Oper’s production of Carmen is a cornerstone of their house, a classic work of traditional theatre in a world where the Carmen figure herself seems to be more and more prevalent. Starring Clémentine Margaine and Riccardo Massi, it's a musical treat, but the production itself, directed by Soren Schuhmacher and conducted by Jacques Lacombe, is sadly lacking in the fire that makes this opera so enduring.

© Bettina Stöß
© Bettina Stöß

The Deutsche Oper’s production premiered in 1979 and underwent a facelift in 2008. It is a pretty production, in shades of white, yellow, blue and orange. From the factory plaza to Lillas Pastia’s tavern to the darkness of the gypsies’ mountain getaway, the sets are a uniform monochrome, almost bland. The soldiers wear yellow, the civilians white, the gypsies black, Carmen red. The sole bit of Spanish flavour we get is Escamillo’s sequined suit, and this is the only time we see the pomp and circumstance of the bullfighting culture: the great party atmosphere of Act IV falls a little flat when none of the bullfighters the crowd is saluting actually appear onstage. There is very little in the way of reality onstage, and nothing in the way of passion. This is supposed to be mythological Spain, that lands of bandits and robbers, of sexy ladies and passionate soldiers, or murder and intrigue and forbidden love. The music gives us all this, but the sets and staging do not. It is a real pity too, as the singers gave uniformly excellent performances.

As Carmen, Clémentine Margaine brought a real sultriness to the role, fully inhabiting her character. Carmen is a tricky character to play: is she a smouldering temptress or a woman who uses her body to get what she wants? Does she love Don José or is she using him throughout the opera? Margaine showed us a woman doing the latter in both cases. This Carmen is bored; bored by the cigarette factory, bored by her admirers, bored with dancing and seducing and having adventures. This is a Carmen at the end of her tether. If she’d been anything but a gypsy, she might have passed on her mantle and settled down to make hats. Her seduction of Don José was done purely out of need. Gone, though, was the dialogue between her and Le Dancaïre where the latter suggests she convince José to join them. It led to the question 'why?' Why did she convince a man she clearly couldn’t care less about to desert his post and join her band of gypsies? Because of the cut dialogue, these questions went unanswered. Throughout, though, Margaine sang with a deep, rich mezzo, her diction clear and perfect. She oozed sexiness and contempt. Hers is certainly a Carmen to watch.

As Don José, Riccardo Massi shouldered the bulk of the opera’s plot. His José was a naïve young man: gone was the backstory of the deadly fight that led him to joining the army. He was presented instead as a somewhat weak-willed youth firmly under his mother’s thumb, dancing to her fiddle even at a distance. From the beginning, during his conversation with Micaëla, it was clear that this Don José is used to women being in positions of authority over him. Carmen’s free will and lack of concern with those around her are fascinating to him, and so naturally he fell to her promise of love: it was a way of indirectly escaping his mother while still not having to really think for himself. And so Carmen played him well and proper. José expected love and loyalty, but what he got was a cruel taskmaster who never once showed him any affection. Massi sang the role beautifully. His Flower Song was deeply emotional, with ringing high notes and almost baritonal low ones. His desperation in the long final duet “C’est toi! C’est moi!” was palpable. The problem with presenting Carmen as bored and Don José as a helpless outcast in every situation he finds himself in is that the final duet makes no sense. There has been no real passion between the two lovers for the entire opera, so why would Don José suddenly lose his mind and murder Carmen in the street? It doesn’t make sense.

Despite the strangely passionless staging, this is an enjoyabe Carmen. The cast is rounded out by Marko Mimica’s powerful Escamillo, the only character in the opera who really understands Carmen and Elena Tsallagova’s excellent Micaëla. Indeed, Tsallagova sang her “Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante” with such ardent beauty that she received the biggest ovation of the night. Further accolades must be given to Elbenita Kajtazi and Stephanie Lauricella as Frasquita and Mercédès, and to Simon Pauly, Tobias Kehrer, Paul Kaufmann and Jörg Schörner as Moralès, Zuniga, Remendado and Dancaïre. All of them sang with beauty and clarity. The Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, conducted by Jacques Lacombe, performed wonderfully well.

In short, the Deutsche Oper’s Carmen is a musically excellent, if slightly passionless, production. You will not come away disappointed.