Love may well be a rebellious bird, but that's as nothing to maverick director Dmitri Tcherniakov. In his beloved Russian repertoire he displays genius – his recent Snow Maiden in Paris fully deserving your vote in our current Best Production poll – but core classics often find him in rebellious mood. In his programme note, Tcherniakov describes being unable to connect with the truth behind the story of Carmen, with all its “unpleasant clichés” of bullfighters, smugglers and tobacco factories, so his twisted staging for Festival d'Aix reimagines Bizet's opera as a radical therapy session for a disturbed young man.

Michael Fabiano (Don José), Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Carmen) and chorus © Patrick Berger | artcompress
Michael Fabiano (Don José), Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Carmen) and chorus
© Patrick Berger | artcompress

In a hotel lobby, a wife brings in her petulant young colt of a husband (tenor Michael Fabiano) to sign up for therapy to resolve his "issues". This will take the form of role play, in which the man will act as Don José in the story of Carmen. An unwilling participant, he nevertheless gets drawn in as professional actors play their parts, Stéphanie d'Oustrac's “Carmen” being especially ditzy and forgetting her lines in a goofy habanera, which ends with “José” having to help her untangle the flower from her hair so she can throw it at him. She misses. It's the antithesis of the usual femme fatale. Complicate matters by having the patient's wife (Elsa Dreisig) play Micaëla and it messes with the guy's mind big time, leaving him in a far worse state than he began. I'd be demanding a refund.

A police raid during Act 1 seems to break the treatment session and the drama – for a moment – appears to be real, Carmen plotting her escape in the Seguidilla, but it's all part of the therapy idea which quickly becomes tired. Each time Tcherniakov runs out of ideas, he resorts to characters referring to their script, just to remind the audience of his single concept. There are gaping dramatic holes. Why would the actors – Carmen and her buddies – continue the fortune-telling scene after Don José has furiously left the room? The director's one clever development is to bring in a new “patient” who begins his Don José therapy during the prelude to Act 4 while Fabiano's character looks on, horrified and unhinged.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Carmen) and Michael Fabiano (Don José) © Patrick Berger | artcompress
Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Carmen) and Michael Fabiano (Don José)
© Patrick Berger | artcompress

“Exactly the response we expected from you,” reports the administrator to Fabiano's character at the halfway point of the therapy. The same could apply to Tcherniakov, who's been here before. His Trovatore for La Monnaie had Azucena gather the five main characters together in a hotel to “figure out the past” in a series of role plays which eventually unravel catastrophically. If you can't connect with a work, why accept a commission to direct it? 

Musically, it was a different matter entirely. All of Seville was in the pit under the watchful eye of Pablo Heras-Casado, the Orchestre de Paris in ebullient form, particularly the ripe bassoons strutting the “Les dragons d'Alcala” entr'acte. Heras-Casado kept the pace flowing, occasionally too quickly – Elsa Dreisig needed a little more space to allow her top notes to bloom in Micaëla's aria – but there was plenty of vim in the bustling crowd scenes.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Carmen), Michael Fabiano (Don José) and Elsa Dreisig (Micaëla) © Patrick Berger | artcompress
Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Carmen), Michael Fabiano (Don José) and Elsa Dreisig (Micaëla)
© Patrick Berger | artcompress

The excellent cast was led by Stéphanie d'Oustrac, playful and light as Carmen, never vulgar, reserving hefty chest notes for her final confrontation with Fabiano's José. Her Seguidilla was dangerously seductive especially when sung under apparent police raid conditions. Fabiano avoided any tendency to oversing, reserving his mighty tenor for telling dramatic moments. His “La fleur que tu m'avais jetée” was the evening's crowning glory, with a gorgeously floated top B flat. His was a triumphant performance, fully committed to the drama. Michael Todd Simpson, despite an undernourished upper register, elicited plenty of mock bravado as Escamillo and Gabrielle Philiponet and Virginie Verrez contrasted nicely with d'Oustrac as a terrific Frasquita and Mercédès.

Tcherniakov enjoys challenging expectations, but is stumped by Bizet's opera. Perhaps it's the director, rather than Don José, who has issues.