Estonia Bizet, Carmen: Estonian National Opera, Arvo Volmer (conductor), Tallinn, 23.5.2012 (GF)
Carmen: Helen Lokuta
Don José: Mart Madiste
Escamillo: Rauno Elp
Micaëla: Albina Kotšetova
Mercédés: Angelika Mikk
Frasquita: Teele Jöks
Dancaïre: Mati Vaikmaa
Remendado: Urmas Pöldma
Zuniga: Märt Jakobson
Morales: Aare Saal
Flamenco dancer: Claudia Ševtšenko
Lillas Pastia: Andres Kask
Guide: Martin Urve
Stage Director: Walter Sutcliffe
Designer: Liina Keevallik
Lighting Designer: Maldar-Mikk Kuusk
Choreographer: Claudia Ševtšenko
In an age when most directors seem to overbid each other in more or less fanciful transportations in time and/or location of the standard operas, Walter Sutcliffe chooses the opposite direction: to recreate as reliably as possible original settings for each act based on photos and etchings from 19th century Spain, pictures that are projected on a full-screen before each act. Thus, to give just one example, the second act is a reconstruction of what might have been Lillas Pastia’s original tavern – and in the background we can see the lights from near-by Seville. Costumes and props are also period, lending authenticity to the production – and there is no feeling of watching an old-fashioned museum performance. Add to this the fact that we see and hear the original opéra-comique version of the opera with spoken dialogue, which offers so much more information about background and characters than the version with recitatives. Having quite recently read Mérimée’s novelette, which was the basis for the libretto, I recognized so many details that give a fuller and more all-embracing understanding of the plot. Just a random example: when Micaëla appears in the third act at the smugglers’ camp up in the mountains she is accompanied by a guide who warns her of the dangers of being there and then leaves her before risking discovery. We understand at once what a brave girl Micaëla is, who persists in her mission to find Don José, how strong her love for José – and for his mother – is.
The opera is performed in the original French and with such an amount of spoken dialogue this is also the main drawback of the production, for the simple reason that several of the singers are not particularly versed in the Gallic idiom. Singing in a foreign language is one thing, speaking it calls for a high degree of fluency. It might have been wiser to play it in the vernacular, which for instance was the case with Die Fledermaus and The Gypsy Princess several years ago.
Enough carping. The production as a whole was engaging, though it took some time to catch fire. The first act felt a bit sleepy. After the first interval, the performance gained momentum, possibly triggered by the captivating gypsy song including spirited flamenco dance by the choreographer Claudia Ševtšenko. The orchestral playing throughout had nerve and brilliance under Arvo Volmer’s watchful eyes, the chorus also acquitted themselves well and the boys’ chorus were excellent in the changing-of-the-guard scene.
The central character in Carmen is of course all-important and the Estonian National Opera has a real trump card in Helen Lokuta. Ever since I first heard her in La Cenerentola almost five years ago she has been a great favourite of mine, and the passionate and independent gypsy seemed to be second nature to her. She has the looks, she is a brilliant actor, her French is splendid and she sings like a goddess. The card scene in act III was spellbinding and the final duet hair-raising. Mart Madiste was a convincing Don José, at times rather strained but delivered a fine flower song in act II and in the final scene he managed to impersonate a character who has lost his foothold in life, kicking his beloved Carmen as she lies defenceless on the ground. He showed the same unbridled brutality in the third act when it dawns upon him that Escamillo is in love with Carmen, attacking him with his rifle butt. Rauno Elp’s toreador is the traditional rather one-dimensional character, dashing but empty. Vocally it seems that he is past his best, singing with a heavy vibrato and greyish tone. Albina Kotšetova was a rather monochrome Micaëla in her act I appearance but improved in the third act where her aria was quite touching. Märt Jakobson was an imposing and big-voiced Zuniga and Angelica Mikk and Teele Jöks made excellent gypsy girls.
The Estonian National Opera’s surtitles are the largest and most readable in any opera house I have visited, and they are in both Estonian and English. So there is no language barrier here, and international visitors need not hesitate.
This was the fourth Carmen in less than a year – fifth if I include a concert performance with our local symphony orchestra a few months ago – and by some measure it was the closest I can imagine to what the Parisians experienced in 1875. In other words: Carmen back-to-basics!