United Kingdom Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Jakub Hrůša (conductor). Directed for the screen by Pati Marr and broadcast to Cineworld Basildon from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. 6.3.2018. (JPr)
Director – Barrie Kosky
Designer – Katrin Lea Tag
Lighting designer – Joachim Klein
Choreographer – Otto Pichler
Dramaturg – Zsolt Horpácsy
Carmen – Anna Goryachova
Don José – Francesco Meli
Escamillo – Kostas Smoriginas
Micaëla – Kristina Mkhitaryan
Zuniga – David Soar
Frasquita – Jacquelyn Stucker
Mercédès – Aigul Akhmetshina
Dancaïro – Pierre Doyen
Remendado – Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Moralès – Gyula Nagy
I am not as familiar with Barrie Kosky’s work as some others and my reaction so far has been either so-so (click here) or thought-provoking (click here), though both had what I have described as his typical ‘madcap mayhem’. Well there is more of that in his Carmen, new to Covent Garden but first put on in Frankfurt in 2016. All you need to know about the director’s approach was revealed in what he said in a pre-recorded interval interview: ‘I wanted to take the opera out of any sort of Spanish kitsch or Folkloric kitsch. So, I wanted to have a sort of haunted space. So, we took a little bit of Buenos Aires 1930s, a little bit of Tango Argentino, there was a little bit of Berlin ‘30s with a little bit of Paris.’ He also commented on his ‘very sparse aesthetic’, how ‘dance is not a secondary element in this piece. Dance is used by Carmen as a force of seduction’ and how a chorus just standing around and singing is – in his opinion – ‘boring’.
Designer Katrin Lea Tag’s single set – if it can be called that – is a steep stage-wide flight of 16 steps, which soloists, chorus and dancers often have to clamber up and down so hectically that it made me worry for their health and safety. (Indeed, Escamillo on his first entrance from the top appeared to misstep momentarily). Jakub Hrůša, launched into the opening bars but then the Prelude stopped prematurely. Attempting to solve the problematic issue of the opera’s dialogue the smoky Jane Birkinish voice of Claude De Demo begins her recitation of some texts that Barrie Kosky has had put together from Meilhac, Halévy and Mérimée. Carmen, dressed as a toreador, beguilingly stares – for the cinema audience – straight down the camera very much as the master/mistress of ceremonies. To be truthful for an opera that should hit the ground running nothing worthwhile happens for over 20 minutes, and the narration adds little throughout the first act apart from explaining what most of us know will happen anyway. Even though this was often some of the best French pronunciation we heard during the evening what was the reason it was not spoken in English?
I know it is illogical to say that this Carmen is both too hyperactive and too static. With nothing for them to say the singers are just on stage to give us their party pieces and there is little genuine human emotion seen. The singers often are as far apart as they can be and the only contact between Carmen and Don José is a long rope (Act I) or a huge ruffled train (Act IV) to symbolise bondage I suspect. On the other hand, the chorus and six principal dancers never stop moving at least for the first two acts which now last a little short of two hours. Overall Otto Pichler’s choreography mixes Busby Berkeley, Roland Petit, Bob Fosse, body popping, semaphoring, with traditional flamenco, tango and paso doble.
We are in the Paris of Offenbach, not Bizet, and what we initially see is part Parisian floorshow, part operetta. There is some interest in the new music we hear – left by the composer after his untimely death only three months after the 1875 premiere of Carmen. Some could have been better left in the library, such as, a comic aria on fidelity for Moralès. Carmen, herself, on her re-entry as a gorilla (don’t ask!) sings the familiar Habanera and immediately a less sultry version with the same words which Bizet had changed because Célestine Galli-Marié (the first Carmen) insisted. It goes to show the singer sometimes knows best! Once out of her fancy-dress costume Kosky’s Carmen remains an androgynous trousered figure in white shirt with black tie for the rest of Act I; though she is a more ‘traditional’ figure for the rest of the opera. The famous ‘flower’ is a shower of rose petals, one of only a few ‘props’ which basically are just that rope, some playing cards and a knife.
Carmen is a powerful piece about love and jealously and there is much to explore here in 2018 about whether the ‘heroine’ is a seductress or a victim. Kosky doesn’t seem to have been the best fit for a work like this. Characters like Micaëla, Escamillo, Frasquita, Mercédès, Zuniga and Moralès are cyphers in the original work and are even more sidelined now. This is the theatre of Bertolt Brecht and not the music drama I believe Bizet conceived. After the beginning of Act III, the narration stops and – typical of Kosky – the production runs out of steam and everything slowly improves. The final confrontation between Carmen and Don José is played mostly straight and proves all the better for it. Even then there is a concluding coup de théâtre which makes us question all that has gone before.
Naturally, I have a history with Carmen at Covent Garden beginning with Agnes Baltsa, José Carreras, Yvonne Kenny and Benjamin Luxon in 1983. This cast fell somewhat short of their stellar performances and those of others I have seen in the intervening years. However, Anna Goryachova had considerable presence as Carmen – in a silent cinema vamp sort of way – and those stares into the camera encapsulated exoticism and sexual domination. Goryachova seemed blessed with a voice as sensual as her appearance. Whether Francesco Meli’s brawny Don José, was acting bewildered by what was happening to him – or simply just was bewildered? – I wasn’t really certain. Whatever he seemed an unwilling participant for the most part and his ‘fight’ with Kostas Smoriginas’s posturing and uncharismatic Escamillo was particularly poorly staged. He was at his best in Act IV when he returned and seemed to channel Otello. José’s obsession with Carmen has the familiar tragic denouement that has triggered much #MeToo debate elsewhere. Unquestionably the most complete performance was from Kristina Mkhitaryan as Micaëla though her music was taken especially slowly at times for some reason. The even more minor roles were cast from strength, the children of the ROH Youth Opera Company were spirited and the Royal Opera Chorus as magnificent as always. Jakub Hrůša and his fine sounding orchestra shed some new light on the score in a stop start performance that had little opportunity to build on any tension and intrigue in Bizet’s music.
Was it intriguing, yes, would I want to see it again, I am doubtful about that. Nevertheless, it was an operatic experience and if you want to catch this Carmen – and do not have a ticket for a remaining performance with the alternate cast – then there will be Encore showings on Sunday 11 March possibly at a cinema near you.
For more about what is on at the Royal Opera House click here.