Tokyo's New National Theatre saw the first performance in the world of the new production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, directed by Spanish director Àlex Ollé, who mounted his bold and successful new production of Turandot to several venues in Japan in 2019. In spite of many Covid-19 prevention barriers, Ollé and his staff managed to enter the country, together with French mezzo soprano Stéphanie d'Oustrac for the title role and French baritone Alexandre Duhamel as Escamillo.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Carmen)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre

This production is set in today’s Japan, where Carmen is an Amy Winehouse inspired rock singer visiting the country for tour and also helps drug smuggling gangs disguised as her tour staff, Don José is a police officer in charge of security and Escamillo is a star toreador visiting Japan for a gala performance. D'Oustrac’s charisma as a rock star is apparent along with her splendid acting skills, portraying the character with boldness and sensitivity. Her hairstyle, tattoos, fashion and makeup completely resemble Winehouse, gorgeous, powerful yet vulnerable and always yearning for freedom. Her voice is strong but with mellow aroma, adding a touch of rock’n’roll spirit, well controlled in tempo and beautiful in her native French diction: an ideal Carmen and an impressive house debut. (She is also a glamorous woman, tall, sensual and with legs to die for.)

Ollé’s intent was to create a Carmen a proud woman of this age, with a strong will to live free and follow her own instinct. Her determination was well shown in her last aria, where she rejects the love of Don Jose telling him she would rather die than accept his love. Carmen's bravery and determination sparkle, leaving an unforgettable impact.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Carmen), Toshiaki Murakami (Don José)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre

As the originally intended Don José could not fit in the 14-day quarantine when entering Japan, Japanese tenor Toshiaki Murakami substituted. Recovering from illness, he gave a stunning virtuoso performance, with much compassion to his pathetic love-sick character. As a modern day police officer, he was dressed in a plain gray suit and looked rather unbalanced with the glamorous rock star Carmen, more of a geek stalker rather than her lover. As Micaëla, Don José’s childhood sweetheart, Ryoko Sunakawa added a charming innocence and her voice was soothingly clear and warm; their duet was one of the high points of the evening. As Frasquita, Mari Moriya gave a stunning house debut: having an international star to this rather small role is a luxury, as is having the great bass Hidekazu Tsumaya in the role of Zuniga.

Alfons Flores’s set design was impressive. A large steel frame dominated the stage, which could represent both iron grilles for the gaol and the sets for a huge rock concert. Carmen as the rock star gives a remarkable entrance singing Habanera on this concert platform stage, surrounded by the crazed audience, but a small disappointment is that her appearance is towards the back of the stage so her otherwise powerful voice was a little hindered. However, the large screen in the back with her closeups gave an overwhelming impact. Another striking effect is seen in the opening of the second scene in Act 3, where a Red Carpet gala is held and the invited celebrities including Carmen and Escamillo strike a pose.

© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre

By placing this production in the modern age, Ollé is successful in telling the story of Carmen as the drama of a woman living in our time, showing the reason why Mérimée's story has been loved for 175 years, a woman fighting for her freedom and resisting male violence. What is a questionable is the reason why this story has to take place in Japan. Indeed, Japan is notorious for gender inequality, frequent sexual harassments but the Me Too movement is a universal one. Perhaps, Ollé might have wanted to reflect the fact that this country will be hosting a large international event, namely the Olympics this month. Moreover, only the police officers, security guards and the children are dressed like people in this country. But anyway, Ollé’s direction is coherent, uncomplicated, speedy, very enjoyable and visually stunning with beautiful lighting effects – in spite of the required social distancing on stage. This production could be adapted for other opera houses worldwide with its simple but stunning sets and its universal theme.

Kazushi Ono, the theatre’s opera artistic director, conducted the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and gave a nuanced, passionate and lively touch, well balanced and dramatically changing tempo during arias. The New National Theatre Chorus gave their usual excellence essential for this production, and notably TOKYO FM Boys Chorus who also contributed a lot for the liveliness and vibrance on stage with their voice and movements.