Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen is back at the Liceu with an uneven cast

SpainSpain Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Coro Infantil Amics de la Unió, Liceu Chorus and Orchestra / Josep Pons (conductor). Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona, 13.1.2024. (JMI)

Clémentine Margaine (Carmen) and Michael Spyres (Don José ) © T. Bofill

Director – Calixto Bieito
Sets – Alfons Flores
Costumes – Mercè Paloma
Lighting – Alberto Rodríguez Vega

Carmen – Clémentine Margaine
Don José – Michael Spyres
Micaëla – Adriana González
Escamillo – Simón Orfila
Zuniga – Felipe Bou
Moralès – Toni Marsol
Dancaïro – Jan Antem
Remendado – Carlos Cosías
Frasquita – Jasmine Habersham
Mercédès – Laura Vila

Carmen has returned to the Liceu where it was last performed in May 2015. This is the same production seen on earlier occasions: the well-known staging by Calixto Bieito, which is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary since it premiered in 1999 at the Castell de Peralada Festival. It is a co-production of the Liceu, Venice’s La Fenice, Palermo’s Teatro Massimo and Turin’s Teatro Regio.

The action is transferred to modern times, possibly the 1970s or 1980s, with a minimalist setting that is perfectly appropriate. The character of Carmen is nothing more than a myth, and myths are timeless. Like Elektra or Salome, Carmen can be adapted to any era, and particularly to ours: the confrontation between two ways of understanding life – free and without ties in the case of Carmen, and traditional and sexist like Don José – is still topical.

The sets show an empty space surrounded by a kind of circular barrier. The change of a few props creates the necessary atmosphere: a telephone booth and a large mast in Act I, a Mercedes in Act II, more cars and the Osborne bull in the third and an empty stage for the last act.

Carmen Act IV promenade of cuadrillas © T. Bofill

Calixto Bieito’s direction stands out powerfully in this production, which is truly worthy of a great theater man. The work that he carries out with the chorus and extras is simply spectacular. Particularly notable is the supposed parade of bullfight cuadrillas in Act IV, a parade that can only be guessed from the gestures of the chorus, which was fantastic. Though there are also some gratuitous and provocative erotic touches which add little to the action.

I found Josep Pons’s conducting rather irregular. His reading was monotonous and routine in the first half of the opera, but it gained in intensity in the second part, especially in Act IV. The orchestra was fine, and the chorus was superb both vocally and dramatically.

French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine as Carmen proved again that she is one of the best interpreters of the character today. Her voice has quality and amplitude, and she is an excellent singer who moves well on stage.

Tenor Michael Spyres is known to opera fans for having coped with difficult characters and in unusual operas. He had to cancel his 8 January performance of Don José due to a cold and was replaced by Freddie de Tommaso, who was in Barcelona for a recital with Lise Davidsen. Spyres had not completely recovered by the time I saw him, and he should not have sung: either he made a mistake in doing so, or it was because he hoped to do the Liceu a favor in its search for a replacement. His performance was adequate, with an attractive sound in the center, but as the opera went on, problems arose. His high notes broke on several occasions – in the duet with Micaëla in Act I, as well as his ‘Flower Song’ – and his voice was not good in the final two acts.

There was a solid performance by soprano Adriana González as Micaëla. Her voice is attractive, with beautiful pianissimos in her Act III aria, and she was outstanding in her duet with Don José in Act I.

Simón Orfila was Escamillo once again, as he has been so many times throughout his career. He is a convincing ‘toreador’, although the passage of time can be noticed in some of his high notes. In any case, he was terrific.

Carmen’s companions were played by Jasmine Habersham (Frasquita) and Laura Vila (Mercédès). The first has a rather metallic voice, while the second did all right, although her voice is not very big.

Jan Antem as Dancaïro and Carlos Cosías as Remendado were good, and Felipe Bou as Zúñiga and Toni Marsol as Moralès were correct in their roles.

José M. Irurzun

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