The opening night of Paolo Pinamonti's second season as director of the Teatro de la Zarzuela had, in principle, its fair share of artistic incentives. First, the theatre decided to revive an old Spanish translation of the French libretto, in an appealing attempt to foster dialogue between opera and zarzuela. Second, talented young director Ana Zamora had promised a feminist reinterpretation of the myth of Carmen, bringing it back to its Spanish cultural context. Finally, the all-Spanish vocal cast, most of them with a solid record as zarzuela singers, seemed to be the perfect choice for that night of artistic translation. Unfortunately, only the latter of these attractions lived up to its potential and the show turned out to be a dismal start to the season.

As a part of its continuous effort to liven up the connection between opera and zarzuela, the Teatro de la Zarzuela decided to use the 1890s Spanish translation of the French original, which had not been performed for decades (while some European theatres do so regularly, the practice long ago became rare in Spain). Even if the translation is not a literary accomplishment, the mere change of language partially achieves the objective of narrowing the gap between genres. As opéra-comique, zarzuelas have spoken scenes and at some points one really had the feeling of attending a true zarzuela, especially as the music interplayed with the Spanish flavour of the text. However, the experiment was not taken farther than that and was even marred by the singer's dramatic clumsiness in the spoken parts. As in previous attempts (Black el Payaso, last season), the lack of ambition of the production as a whole prevented a true exploration of this hybrid artistic land.

Zamora made her opera debut with two objectives that may seem daunting even for a seasoned opera director: place Carmen in a Spanish literary and historical context, as if the drama had been written by a Spanish author, and single her out as a feminist, revolutionary character. The stakes were high but, sadly, the results were all but disappointing, due in part to a poor visual translation of these ideas, but also as a result of flaws in the concept itself. Zamora took Carmen through different times in Spanish history, from the early 19th century when the original action takes place, to the Spanish Civil War and the sexual liberation in the 1970s. Projected quotes of prominent female personalities in Spanish political and literary history (liberal heroine Mariana Pineda, writer Emilia Pardo Bazán and suffragist Clara Campoamor) tried to put Carmen in the context of women's strife for liberty and equality, but the absence of an organic connection to the drama and, above all, the lack of a blunt dramatic language made the proposal irrelevant and uninteresting. It was as if the director had not even dared to convince the audience of her political discourse.

The same can be said of the attempted feminist interpretation of Merimée's text: it is not enough to ingenuously underscore the alleged misogyny of the original material to build up a convincing discourse about Carmen's freedom. What is Carmen about? Is it the story of a woman that consumes her sexual capital and subverts the gender-based structures of power, or is it rather a man's quest to master an erotic challenge that threatens to ruin him (in opposition to Micaëla's pure and traditional love)? In this sense the crux of the plot does not differ much from what troubles Pollione or Hoffmann: a classical sexual dilemma and yet another version of the femme fatale. To overcome (and even take advantage of) this complexity, a feminist view could thrive in the intersections, in the clashes of meanings rather than in the outright confrontation. On the contrary, the director got lost in a literal translation and failed to put together a genuine vision of such a fascinating character, offering a show that, as a whole, lacked tension, interest and dramatic clout.

The vocal cast, however, raised the level of the night. María José Montiel, with her rich and dark voice (though a bit guttural in the central notes) and an irresistible touch of the old-fashioned theatrical diva, stood out in the title role. She was at ease in the complex tessitura, showing full high tones and a notable ability to control the volume and deliver beautiful pianissimi. A sensual Carmen in an obvious and deliciously dated way, she gave a passionate and honest performance, even if the interpretation inevitably suffered from the production's flaws. Light lyric soprano Sabina Puértolas was a convincing and brave Micaëla with moments of excellent singing, a remarkable feat considering that the role is written for a full lyric voice. Bass Rubén Amoretti was an Escamillo of stout vocal presence, maybe lacking some flexibility in the phrasing. José Ferrero's Don José, on the other hand, was miscast. 

Yi-Chen Lin, a talented, young Taiwanese conductor, led the orchestra of the Teatro de la Zarzuela for the first time. Everything sounded clear and in order, with enough energy and a good sense of rhythm, always paying attention to the singers. However, it was but a first reading of the score, and did not give way to many subtleties. The orchestra's mundane colour and standard quality did not help either to draw the sensual atmospheres of Bizet's brilliant score, pronounced in this case with a far too heavy Spanish accent.

To sum up, in spite of the good vocal level, the show left us yearning for better translations or, at least, more ambitious translators.