Bieito’s Carmen gets memorable performances in Vienna from Garanča and Beczała

AustriaAustria Bizet, CarmenSoloists, Children of the Opera School, Chorus and Orchestra of Vienna State Opera / Yves Abel (conductor). Performed at the Vienna State Opera and livestreamed (directed by Jasmina Eleta) on 12.9.2022. (JPr)

Elīna Garanča (centre, Carmen) and Piotr Beczała (right, Don José) © Wiener Staatsoper

Director – Calixto Bieito
Staging rehearsed by Calixto Bieito and Joan Anton Rechi
Sets – Alfons Flores
Costumes – Mercè Paloma
Lighting – Alberto Rodriguez Vega

Carmen – Elīna Garanča
Don José – Piotr Beczała
Escamillo – Roberto Tagliavini
Micaëla – Slávka Zámečníková
Frasquita – Maria Nazarova
Mercédès – Isabel Signoret
Zuniga – Ilya Kazakov
Moralès – Stefan Astakhov
Remendado – Carlos Osuna
Dancaïre – Michael Arivony
Lillas Pastia – Yta Moreno
The Girl – Ralitsa Dimitrova

Spanish theatre director Calixto Bieito is regarded as an enfant terrible of opera and his recent Vienna Tristan und Isolde lingers in the memory (review click here) and he will soon be staging two of Mahler’s song cycles in the opera house where the composer was in charge for ten years. Meanwhile – perhaps his best production so far – Carmen has returned and gained an extra performance for a sell-out run because of the cancellation of a previously advertised La Juive revival. I first saw this Carmen in the cinema in 2015 when it was revived by English National Opera. Now regarded as a modern classic, it was first staged at the 1999 Peralada Festival in northern Catalonia, has travelled to America and elsewhere in Europe, and indeed will be next seen in Paris in coming months.

Bieito’s Carmen premiered last year in Vienna and strips – literally at one point! – the familiar story down to its bare essentials and notably there is very little dialogue. On screen in 2015 and 2021 (in an empty opera house because of Covid-19) I have found it immensely powerful. Again, it now benefitted from close-up camerawork which makes the viewer concentrate on the almost constant threat of brutality and sexual violence that dominates Bieito’s Konzept.

This Carmen – designed by Bieito’s regular collaborators Alfons Flores and Mercè Paloma – is visually striking although everything is rather dark and hazy with only a few elements on stage to distinguish the four acts: in Act I there is a flagpole and a telephone box to one side; one car, a folding chair, some cool boxes and – for some reason – a fake Christmas tree in Act II; five Mercedes-Benz saloon cars are hauntingly overshadowed by the iconic Osborne sherry black bull silhouette for Act III; with this bull being ‘deconstructed’ at the start of the final act. The fatal denouement happens in a large white circle drawn by Lillas Pastia (a non-singing Yta Moreno) who Bieito shows as both white fedoraed pimp, as well as the ringmaster overseeing proceedings and who begins the opera with a cackling ‘Love is like death!’.

We are at an outpost on the Spain/Morocco border where we find macho, tattooed, sex-starved squaddies, along with gypsies who are not only smugglers but sell sex. As a punishment a bare-chested soldier is shown circling the stage until he collapses through exhaustion and is carried away. There is a palpable miasma of heat, sweat and desire and it is all simmering with pent-up tension and because of all the testosterone everyone looks ready to hit someone or something! All the cars look battered enough to begin with but come in for some further bashing from an array of fists from time to time. Characters want to take out their frustrations on anything that is nearby, whether inanimate – or occasionally animate. The only suggestion of male vulnerability we see is during a brief balletic entr’acte leading us into Act III when a soldier strips naked and imitates the moves of a bullfighter.

Nobody is the Spanish stereotype we are used to in Carmen and so everything is truer to life. Micaëla may still appear to be a good Catholic girl because she prays to a small crucifix she put on the bonnet of a car, but she certainly is not as virginal as is usually portrayed. This Micaëla is happy to wrap a leg around Don José in the first act as she tries to encourage him to return to her and later will be seen gloating as she wins him back, for however briefly that is. Carmen is no perfumed seductress but a slightly unhinged good-time girl who embraces the power she has over men (and possibly women?), whilst realising the life she leads can never have a happy ending. Don José isn’t a callow – somewhat naïve – lad easily entranced by Carmen’s sexual allure who only explodes in jealous, murderous rage at the end of the opera: here Bieito shows how his obsession, instability and aggression builds as she relentlessly torments him. Only Escamillo the toreador is … well … a toreador!

Bieito introduces a small girl (Ralitsa Dimitrova) to the story and gives her a significant presence throughout his Carmen. She appears to be Mercédès’s daughter, and we are keenly aware of her lost innocence with all the goings-on around her. We first see her playing with a Barbie doll in a flamenco dress, yet she will be dolled up herself in the third act and made to wear stilettos and we can only but wonder what her mother’s plans are for her. Apart from the uniformed soldiers everyone else is colourfully dressed and look as though they are ready for some Benidorm nightlife. The large choruses (children and adult) are well-handled and very enthusiastic and together with the principal singers it is all performed with enough nuance to make the well-known story unfold with enhanced dramatic intent.

Elīna Garanča (Carmen) and Piotr Beczała (Don José) © Wiener Staatsoper

When the #MeToo movement was fresher in our minds then it currently is a spotlight was thrown on the free-spirited Carmen because she becomes the victim of male hegemony. Bieito’s production predates this by several years and Jasmina Eleta’s camera focussed voyeuristically on Carmen intimately rubbing a red flower over her body. When the opera ends there is no redemption for the gypsy and after she exclaims how she was ‘born free, she will die free!’, Don José slits her throat and she is dragged away much like, I believe, slaughtered bulls ignominiously are when removed from the arena.

Vienna State Opera had assembled another cast of outstanding singing-actors, led – no, dominated – by Elīna Garanča who makes Carmen come alive. There are few niceties to her tough, provocative, alluring, promiscuous, emotionally unavailable, and ultimately self-destructive ‘ball-breaker’. And what a voice hers is! Garanča reveals an earthy seductiveness throughout her mezzo range from the highest notes to the smoky, sensual low ones. As with all the best Carmens – and Garanča is probably the best of her generation – you can only admire the expressive nuance she brought to significant words such as ‘l’amour’ and ‘la mort’ and the frisson they create. Her Carmen’s explosive temper tantrums were interspersed with calculated bouts of mockery, and it was the male of the species who was the butt of those.

Piotr Beczała continues to suggest he is the preeminent lyric tenor of his generation, once again he was 100% committed – vocally and dramatically – to Don José’s arc from dutiful soldier – though one with baggage – to a spineless, broken figure who turns psychotic killer. There was some compelling lyricism from Beczała during the first two acts and ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ began dangerously with his back to the audience before he caressed the treacherous high B-flat impeccably. He became increasingly impassioned during Act III and searing in the ‘C’est toi? C’est moi!’ duet which seals his and Carmen’s fate.

As previously suggested, Micaëla is somewhat less simpering than usual and is feistier and more assertive, although plagued with some doubts she resolves to rescue Don José which she expresses in her prayerful ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ in the third act. Soprano Slávka Zámečníková impressed with both her singing and acting.

Last year I thought I couldn’t remember a better Escamillo than Erwin Schrott, but the wild-eyed Roberto Tagliavini was every bit his equal. He sang with a dark, cavernous bass and his toreador was full of braggadocio, but you got the feeling that below the surface he was keenly aware of the dangers he faced in his profession. Escamillo is shown drinking excessively as most of the characters in this Carmen do in order to blot out the misery of their lives. Finally, Maria Nazarova (Frasquita), Isabel Signoret (Mercédès), Stefan Astakhov (Moralès) and Carlos Osuna (Remendado) were a well-characterised quartet of reprobates and the brutish Zuniga (a stentorian Ilya Kazakov) suffered mercilessly at their hands.

Yves Abel launched his musicians of the Vienna State Opera orchestra into a ferocious account of the overture, an immediate reminder of the violent undercurrent of Carmen’s life. Elsewhere, Abel brought much summer sun to Bizet’s passionate score and the playing sounded – albeit through loudspeakers – particularly fine with many virtuosic solos, especially from the woodwinds, as well as the horn for Micaëla’s aria. Abel’s conducting was sensitive to the many subtleties of the music, though the raw energy we experienced was solely because of some world-class singing.

© Jim Pritchard

2 thoughts on “Bieito’s <i>Carmen</i> gets memorable performances in Vienna from Garanča and Beczała”

  1. Very interesting review. Thank you.
    I’m normally not a great fan of Calixto Bieito but I appreciate this production more each time I see it. As you say, ‘Nobody is the Spanish stereotype we are used to in Carmen’ although I think they are more like stereotypes of what the French think of as ‘Spanish’! Bieito/Beczala’s take on Don José is much closer to Mérimée than Bizet. Mérimée’s Don José always had a penchant for violence and is not just some naïve lad in the grip of passion; the reason he is in down South is because he killed a man in a duel over a game in his native Navarre.

  2. LOL. Go figure. I am dangerously close to be a Garanča fanatic. Saw her more than a dozen times, this was my fourth Carmen, last one was Verona a month ago (spectacular), the first was in Paris, same production, which I also loved. Agree the PB is probably the best tenor today, …bar is low… but hey. So there I come to Staatsoper without a doubt in my mind it was going to be the usual triumph. Well, it was not. I cannot comment on the second half… as I left at the interval… I have NEVER done it before, but it was impossible for me to stay, it was atrocious, squarely culpable the conductor, a ‘rusher’ with no feeling, I have seen another such conductor (Benini) managing to spoil a Traviata and a Trovatore for me, rescued by monumental and acrobatic performances by Bakanova and the mighty Sondra Radvanovsky. And here Garanča and Beczala (although, I don’t find him an ideal DJ…but that’s me) did the same, or rather tried… but especially with this production, if you rush it, you end up sucking the passion out of it …and no passion, no Carmen, despite the always great Elīna. Now, was I having a bad dream? Maybe..but..but: with this cast you’ll expect the Theater to be buzzing and ovations to follow any well sung arias: it did not, except ‘La fleur’ …where PB was rewarded for quite a good pianissimo at the end of the aria. So something was missing …the energy was simply not there. Avoid Abel like the plague folks, except if you like to witness a masterpiece in musical value destruction. Sorry reviewer …TOTALLY disagree with you, or maybe we have different perspectives …except on one thing we do agree: memorable indeed.

    JP replies: Thank you. I do not believe we actually ‘totally disagree’ as the difference is mainly about the conducting and – as ever – if I am watching online (or even in the cinema) I mentioned I was listening through loudspeakers and so can only comment on what they let me hear.


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