With an opera like Carmen, one never knows exactly what to expect. Recent trends (with English National Opera, for instance) have been to up the levels of raunchiness in an attempt to recreate the original scandale which this depiction of lower-class immorality in 19th-century Seville met with in Paris in 1875. Anyone expecting such blatant sensuality will have been disappointed with the Moscow State Opera’s production of Bizet’s classic. Provocative, it was not: instead we had a distinctly enjoyable, beautifully sung and visually clever production which brought the comic and the ludic to the fore in a thoroughly refreshing way.

Moscow State Opera, Carmen
Moscow State Opera, Carmen

The music of Carmen is instantly appealing: it is full of catchy melodies, quirky rhythms and zany harmonies, and as a result, this universal familiarity puts the musicians under more pressure to come up with a convincing interpretation. During the overture to each of the three acts this need was nicely answered by George Isaakyan’s adroit direction. Half the curtain went up to reveal a teaser of what would take place, largely in a comic fashion. In the overture to Act I, we had the soldiers marching across, with one of the soldiers in a wheelbarrow jumping around like a frog, while in the overture to Act II we had a short puppet show of Carmen and Don José, where the former gave her heart to the latter. While primarily shown for humorous reasons, it did also suggest the rather transitory and unstable nature of such a relationship.

When the curtain finally opened fully on Act I, it revealed scaffolding which served as the versatile backdrop for both the soldiers working and the factory girls leaving the cigarette factory. The dragoons were dressed in the fashion of the Second Empire, while the working girls wore colourful, voluminous skirts reminiscent of Iberian costumes of the time. There was a somewhat anachronistic poster in the background: Picasso’s lithograph “Toros y Toreros”.

Although Mikhail Makarov sang Don José’s role very well, in the first act he seemed to start off rather emotionally disengaged. This might have been the desired effect he wanted to create on the soon-to-be forlorn Micaëla, performed by the excellent Celine Byrne, but it certainly did not suggest a man of volcanic passions who will be subsumed into the vortex of madness and will eventually murder the woman he loves. Byrne’s voice was certainly the most striking of the evening, its pellucid quality bound to melt even the most obdurate man.

The entrance of the eponymous heroine was also played down: just before she appeared, three possible Carmens, all dressed extravagantly in red, all equally fiery, were thrust forward, making us wonder who would fit the bill. When Nadezhda Babinsteva finally revealed herself, it was as unassuming as it was surprising. Dressed in a white blouse and red skirt, she eschewed the usual overtly flirtatious entrance, desperate to show her lax credentials, and instead elected to be brazenly confident with a little bit of coquettishness thrown in for good measure. I found this novel way of presenting Carmen highly convincing. A balance was struck between power and feminine allure that helped explain her sway over all the men and women, a fact that was rather intelligently suggested in her Habanera, where the dragoon and girls swayed in time with her hand movements.

Act II brought the action from the factory to the smuggler’s tavern with the introduction of Don José’s macho rival Escamillo, played by Alkhas Ferzba. I say macho, but sadly this Escamillo was a little too humble in accepting the adorations of his women followers. Vocally he lacked the projection on the lower notes to convey the force of his character. One was left feeling that neither the emotionally perfunctory DJ nor the lightweight Escamillo was a worthy counterpart to the heroine. On a more positive note, Albina Fayruzona excelled as the gypsy girl Frasquita and there was some excellent business during this scene.

Prison seemed to have awoken Don José emotionally, for by Act III there was something approaching carnal passion in his appetite for Carmen. There was a visually ingenious moment of incorporating Picasso’s ceramic of the bullring as the backdrop to the final scene. The abrupt curtain after Carmen was stabbed left us in an appropriate state of emotional shock.

A final word of praise is due to the female Chief Conductor of the MSO, Alevtina Ioffe, who rejected the sentimental in favour of a rhythmically driven approach, resulting in a performance where the energy propelled the action to its fateful conclusion.