Bizet never went to Spain. He never met a Spanish gypsy. His evocation of southern Spain and the gypsy life in Carmen is wholly exoticised and romanticised, the product of Bizet’s mind rather than any reality. The music is a whirlwind of orchestral colour and rhythmic vitality, and while it probably has little to do with Spanish or gypsy music or culture, it fully evokes the fantasy of this world in the eyes of northern Europe.

Anke Vondung (Carmen) and Kostas Smoriginas (Escamillo) © Matthias Creutziger
Anke Vondung (Carmen) and Kostas Smoriginas (Escamillo)
© Matthias Creutziger

This orientalist evocation of Carmen’s world is perhaps what makes Alex Köhler’s Dresden production jar. By relocating the opera to modern times, furnishing it with the sort of grimy, industrial set beloved of 21st century opera productions, Köhler attempts to make the work relevant by erasing the historical divide. There is an impressive unity to this production, with set, costumes, and movement expressing one ideal: this is not a nice happy place, but a factory-town in a post-industrial world inhabited by society’s underdogs and plagued by violent crime. Eschewing the kitsch of so many modern Carmen productions certainly creates a USP and sheds a different light on the work. However, Carmen is in so many way’s a kitsch opera. It’s Bizet’s over-the-top, erotic and exotic tour de force, and so the overall effect of this production is jarring: the music says one thing, while the production says another.

One of the biggest stars of Carmen is the chorus, and the Sächsischer Staatsopernchor really shone here, with a rich blended sound and crisp articulation full of character. With them stood a strong group of soloists. Micaëla is a difficult role because she is barely a character, representing the innocent life Don José once led, rather than a real love interest. The American soprano, Emily Dorn, has a sweet voice which she uses subtly, in keeping with her character’s simplicity. There are singers with beautiful voices and there are singers who do beautiful things with their voices, and I think Nikolai Schukoff is one of the latter. His Don José is no sweet-voiced youth, but the legato seems unending and there is a sense of phrasing which was not only poised, but matched to the character’s emotions. As Escamillo, Ilhun Jung struggled to convince as Carmen’s virile love interest, with a somewhat small, if pleasing voice.

Vanessa Goikoetxea (Frasquita), Anke Vondung (Carmen) and Julia Mintzer (Mercédès) © Matthias Creutziger
Vanessa Goikoetxea (Frasquita), Anke Vondung (Carmen) and Julia Mintzer (Mercédès)
© Matthias Creutziger

However, Anke Vondung’s Carmen rightly stood in the spotlight. She is so totally at home on stage and oozes sex appeal in her movements on stage, with seductive charisma. Vocally she was a step above her co-stars too, with a rich, sumptuous voice always perfectly judged to project over the orchestra. But it was the range of colours which was most astonishing. So many singers are scared to let their vowel sounds ring true for fear of losing richness of sound, or see the presence of breath in the sound as a complete no-go. But Vondung demonstrates how these things have a place, and can at times perfectly express the character’s state of mind, adding immeasurably to both the musical and dramatic effect.

Vondung’s on-stage colours are mirrored in the pit, with the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden filling Bizet’s music with the complete spectrum of sound. Conductor Josep Caballé-Domenech keeps the music well-paced, avoiding the temptation to draw out Carmen’s two famous dances, while still allowing time for her to be rhythmically flirtatious.