Carmen at Sweden’s Opera på Skäret

Bizet, Carmen:  at Opera på Skäret , Kopparberg, Sweden, premiere on 23.7.2011 (GF)

Directed by Sten Niclasson
Sets by Sven Östberg
Choreography by Maria Pröckl-Steen
Costumes by Sigyn Stenqvist
Light design by Ronny Andersson


Carmen – Matilda Paulsson
Don José – Kristian Benedikt
Micaëla – Yana Kleyn
Escamillo – Johan Rydh
Zuniga – Andreas Lundmark
Frasquita – Liine Carlsson
Mercedes – Rita Therese Ziem
El Dancairo – Calle Lindén
El Remendado – Alexander Grove
Morales, Lilla Pastia – Mattias Nilsson
Bergslagens Musikdramatiska Kör, Carmenorkestern 2011 – Marcello Motadelli

Carmen (Matilda Paulsson) and Escamillo (Johan Rydh)

For the eighth summer festival at the magnificent wooden opera house on Lake Ljusnaren, just a few kilometres from Kopparberg, Sten Niclasson and his team have left the Italian repertoire that hitherto has given us works by Verdi, Puccini and Leoncavallo, and turned to the greatest and most popular French opera, Carmen. Bizet’s masterpiece has never lost its appeal, but this year seems to be the Carmen year – at least in the Nordic countries. The Estonian National Opera launched a new production in the spring this year, Skäret followed suit a couple of months later, in mid-September the Finnish National Opera presents the fiery gypsy and a week later Stockholm’s Royal Opera joins the company. Browsing through Operabase for other Carmen performances I found lots and lots of them all over the operatic world.

I didn’t have an opportunity to see the Tallinn production, so Skäret’s was the first in the row this time. The technical capacity at Skäret is relatively limited so they have to find solutions that can work through the whole evening without changing the basic stage picture. For Carmen Sven Östberg has created a circular shaped white building with lots of open entrances, like some ancient Greek temple. Parts of the walls can be moved and thus there is instead a half-circle opening towards the audience. This works well. For the first act, the temple represents the barracks where Don José and his fellow soldiers work, in act two it becomes Lillas Pastia’s tavern, in act three the lodgings of the smugglers up in the mountain – and why not? Who says that there can’t be the ruins of an old convent up there? – and in the concluding act it is the bull fighting arena. The concept is in fact similar to the Metropolitan’s present production though Skäret of course does not have a rotating turntable, so that the walls have to be moved manually. Some evocative lighting heightens the atmosphere and the costumes are colourful in a rather tourist-picture-postcard manner. The whole production is traditional and inoffensive – and also small-scale. The limited space on stage means that there is no room for a hundred-head strong chorus and the orchestra, which is a pickup-group for this production, can’t possibly get the thrust and sheen that a full-size opera orchestra can achieve. They play extremely well and belie its small size – nineteen strings only! – but the impact is small-scale. The chorus also sing very well – and this is also a pick-up group consisting of good amateurs as well as music students – and they act convincingly (and often more than that!) but the overall sound impression is a little distant. And yet, considering the resources available, this is extremely well realized – the marvellous acoustics naturally contribute to the forces sounding larger than they are – and as soon as one gets involved in the drama the limitations become less important.

Don José (Kristian Benedikt) and Carmen (Matilda Paulsson)

But it took some time on the opening night to reach the temperature where the Spanish temperament comes to the fore. Maestro Motadelli went for a knock-out from the start, and the opening section of the prelude was close to frantic. Actually, like the MET performance I mentioned, one feared for an overly hard-boiled concept. When things settled, though, the first act unfolded rather tamely. Since this was the premiere, there were a lot of nerves involved and the presence of an audience is always – or quite often – an inhibiting factor. The first act felt patchy with pauses between the scenes that were too long, and it all felt like a cool breeze from up north was blowing through Seville instead of a red hot southern wind carrying tropical heat from the Sahara. Things improved during the second act, and it seemed that the wind had turned. The quintet was sung and acted with real brio – and elegance – and was the dramatic turning point. The third act is bleak and chilly up there on the mountain – just listen to the music – but also extremely gripping. The card scene had the right intensity, Micaëla made the sun come through the clouds through her aria, and after Don José’s and Micaëla’s departure, Maestro Motadelli created a true feeling of festivity during the opening of the short last act. The final duet and José’s murder of Carmen had the intensity one always wishes.

A little more than three years ago, I saw Matilda Paulsson’s Royal Opera debut in Der Rosenkavalier and wrote: ‘[She] seems cut out for a great career with a large and expressive voice and she acted convincingly as the teenaged Octavian.’ After that she was invited to sing Octavian in several European houses and now she has reached most mezzo-sopranos’ dream role, Carmen. She has charisma, she acted well and her singing met the requirements, though her first act arias were a little low-key. She grew along with the intensity of the performance and impressed us vocally, in particular in the card scene in the third act – and of course in the culmination of the murder scene. During this autumn she is scheduled to sing Carmen in both Stockholm and Helsinki.

Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt was a rather wooden actor in the first act and didn’t seem in top vocal form, with tightly produced tones and few nuances. But in the second act he lived up to his reputation and delivered a fine flower song with a heroic ring – he also sings Otello! – and his stage presence was greatly improved. During the remainder of the opera he was more than a match for his Carmen.

Yana Kleyn, who sang Mimi in last year’s La Bohème at Skäret, was a suitably innocent-looking Micaëla in light-blond wig. Her fluttery voice has warmth and she was touching in her aria in the third act, which received the longest applause of the evening. Possibly the most impressive singing was delivered by Johan Rydh, who was a dashing Escamillo. He even managed to make the bullfighter sensitive and humane by scaling down and singing parts of the toreador song softly and inwardly. Si tu m’aime Carmen, the opening of the little duet outside the arena in the last act, was immensely beautiful.

There was good singing and acting in the minor, but equally important roles as well with Andreas Lundmark a well-profiled Zuniga. He will be Escamillo in some future performances and Sandra Lopez, Stuart Neill and Eva-Lotta Ohlsson will also appear as Carmen, Don José and Micaëla.

There will be another twelve performances until 21 August and also a gala concert in memory of Jussi Björling on 5 August.

Göran Forsling

 Photos © Gunnar Seijbold


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