France Festival d’Aix-en-Provence  – Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Maîtrise des Bouches-du-Rhône (chours master: Samuel Coquard), Chœur Aedes (chorus master: Mathieu Romano), Orchestre de Paris / Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor). Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix, 13.7.2017. (MB)
Carmen – Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Don José – Michael Fabiano
Micaëla – Elsa Dreisig
Escamillo – Michael Todd Simpson
Frasquita – Gabrille Philiponet
Mercédès – Virginie Verrez
Zuniga – Christine Helmer
Moralès – Pierre Doyen
Le Dancaïre – Guillaume Andrieux
Le Remendadao – Mathias Vidal
Administrator – Pierre Grammont
Director, Designs – Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costumes – Elena Zaitseva
Lighting – Gleb Filshtinsky
At last: a Carmen that takes a step back (from the work) and several steps forward (in every other dramaturgical respect). If one wants Carmen straight, as it were, Calixto Bieito’s Franco-era production will do very nicely indeed. As for borderline racists lusting after picture-postcard ‘Spain’ – it makes a change from lamenting the lack of blacking up in Othello – who cares? They certainly did, I am delighted to report. I do not know what the reaction was on the first night, but here various audience members, keen to show that the French wing of ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’ is pulling its weight, contributed greatly to the cabaret. Some booed during the performance; some shouted things out. Perhaps my favourite was one man who helpfully informed the cast that they were delivering ‘the wrong dialogue’. Bless him, or rather do not. An American family – the parents anyway: the children seemed fine – could be heard during the interval lamenting the ‘Eurotrash’ they had seen: surely a title la Carmencita herself would happily ‘reclaim’, although she might have to return with those visitors to the era of big-hair Dallas and Dynasty to do so. I should also not forget a woman seated not so far from me. At the end, she was visibly excited when Pablo Heras-Casado came onstage to take his bow. It was her moment, she knew, and she took it, starting to boo vigorously. Her husband then explained to her, a little too late, that Heras-Casado was the conductor, not the director. Who cares, though? When you want to make animal noises in a theatre and generally behave like an uneducated fascist, go for it. At least they all have a new hate figure to supplant Gerard Mortier; and what is petit bourgeois life without hate figures?
Dmitri Tcherniakov does far more, though, than épater les bourgeois – although I shall not deny the theatre in that itself. We all know the ‘monster opera Carmen’, as he calls it; and if we do not, we can do so at the click of a mouse. What is far too often lost – not, to be fair in Bieito, but in most productions, which are simply ghastly – is the drama. We do not actually know the opera at all, most of us; we know some tacky visualisations, often more fitted to a set of plates to be bought from a Sunday colour supplement. (Do they still exist? Do we care?) We play at knowing it, keeping our distance from anything that might challenge us. We, then, are the protagonists – albeit in a drama that is true to no one’s ‘intentions’, least of all to Bizet’s or Merimée’s. That is emphatically so here: we are confronted with what we – all of us – have done to Carmen and to ourselves, and by what we continue to do so.
And so, Tcherniakov presents us with a man of today, an Everyman even: Don José. Carmen is decentred; she will, like the rest of the cast, be brought in as and when required. The man, whoever, he is, clearly wealthy – a beautiful suit and shoes – is in a bad way. He needs therapy, and his wife is determined to have him undergo it. Should we not suspect her actions too, though? On what basis does she derive any authority in this treatment, or game, or drama, or whatever we want to call it, think of it? As this ‘thing’, let us call it an opera, progresses, we are certainly given reason, often quite subtle, to doubt her, to doubt everything and everyone: above all, we are given reason to doubt ourselves. (Will we be brave enough, even able, to do so, though? Tcherniakov helps; the performers help; but therapy requires preparation, consent, participation.) When the mysterious – or is he merely mundane? – Administrator explains what will happen to our (anti-)hero, he laughs, refuses to take it seriously. Michael Fabiano’s laugh is itself a thing of artistic horror, almost to put alongside that of Klytämnestra (in another twisted therapeutic context). But play the game of Carmen he must; or rather he decides to. Scepticism is palpable; we have surely all felt sceptical at some time towards dramas and productions that reveal things we should rather leave unrevealed. But once the game is afoot, wallet and telephone handed in for safe keeping, he must continue. Indeed, he refuses the advised option of calling it quits at half time. His progress has been such that he is about to be discharged. He wants to carry on to the end, and so he does.
Who are the expensive – opera is expensive – cast of characters and extras brought in for the game? His wife returns, in need of a role. She becomes Micaëla. But like him, we are sometimes a little unsure what is for real, and what is not. Are the troops who storm the stage at the end of the first act, to impose order, actually from ‘outside’? It is cleverly suggested – or I lazily assumed – that they might be; but no, we discover, in the Administrator’s next visitation and explanation (true, or not?) that they were part of the game. That is what opera is; is it not? Guns fire ‘smiley’ faces of approval; we are the customers, after all. No, of course we are not; we are the participants, but we, or at least some of us, like to think we are customers. No more in Carmen than in the Ring should that be the case. As Pierre Boulez once remarked, ‘opera houses are … like cafés where … you can hear waiters calling out their orders: “One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!”’ His playful suggestion, or rather hinted suggestion, a few years earlier was that an elegant solution would be to blow them into the air. Indeed. There are more ways, more interesting ways, of accomplishing that, of course, than with actual explosives. We might as well just read out the stage directions if we want to play at opera – which is precisely what happens here.
Carmen – or the woman playing Carmen – becomes deeply concerned about where things are heading. She wants out, but the Administrator says no. What are her feelings for the man she is paid (presumably) to help? Interestingly, even ironically, relieved of simply being Carmen, the ‘icon’, she becomes a more interesting, more complex, or at least less readily stereotyped, character. Her interaction with Fate thus acquires new meaning – and new questioning. Tragedy, however, reinstates itself. At the end, the man is broken more than ever before. Don José has killed him; Carmen has killed him; his wife has killed him; therapy has killed him. Others – neither ‘Carmen’ nor his wife, though – have been busily celebrating the end of the game, the end of the opera. Life and art are not like that, not at all. Do you want ‘picturesque’ scenery and a ‘heart-warming’ justification of your own existence, followed, perhaps, by a ‘nice meal’: go elsewhere. You – we – actually need this.
Fabiano gave a tireless, often terrifying performance in the central role. If there were occasions when his style was a little on the Italianate side, then who cares, especially on this particularly occasion? So much of what we were seeing and hearing in any case concerned the playing of roles. (I keep telling myself I should include myself in all of that – and I should, but do not want to seem still more solipsistic here. But what gives any of us the right to expectations, and should we not at least question them vigorously?) In any case, identification with something that was both Don José and yet was not became clearer and deeper as he and we penetrated role and game deeper too. I do not think I have seen a more tormented, possessed man on stage, certainly not for a long time. This was his drama – and by his, I mean at least as much Fabiano’s as the anonymous man’s or as Don José’s. And he can certainly sing too, with dark, repressed menace, just as much as with splendidly ‘operatic’, climactic passion. Liberated as discussed above, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, gave a splendidly thoughtful portrayal – or whatever we wish in this context to call it. Expectations subverted, she could present a woman who did not always know what to do for the best, and yet tried to do so, a woman with agency of her own, agency that was yet hemmed in by powerful forces from without. Sung with an elegance to offset and yet also to complement Fabiano’s passion, this was a performance to make one think just as much as his – provided one permitted oneself to do so.
Elsa Dreisig’s Micäela became more manipulative, less predictable: something to be heard as well as merely observed. Treating opera as drama creates opportunities for all, both on and off stage. (Both Joseph Kerman and Tcherniakov could have told us that; so could both Bizet and Boulez.) Michael Todd Simpson’s Escamillo – playing Micaëla’s extra-marital lover, or was he actually so? – was vocally disappointing, somewhat dry of tone; yet, as with so much else here, there were other ways of approaching what we saw and heard. Amongst the ‘smaller’ roles, everything was well taken; special mention, I think, should go to the voices of Gabrielle Philiponet and Virginie Perez. Choral singing was excellent throughout, as was the incisive, often colourful – yet not unduly touristic – playing of the Orchestre de Paris. Heras-Casado seemed to me to make a great effort as collaborator, not simply as ‘conductor’. (We all play roles, but that does not mean we should not reconsider them.) There was, throughout, a keen sense of engagement with Tcherniakov: not necessarily simply mirroring, for that is certainly not what orchestra or conductor should be doing. Taken as a whole, the musical performances engaged with, enabled, and criticised the production; as it did them; as all did the work. Ladies, gentlemen, however we wish to define and perform ourselves: welcome, whether you like it or not, to musical drama. It comes alive when you least expect it. It may sometimes not even work. Life is like that, but it is not life; it is both less and more, better and worse, than that.