Zurich Opera sets their new Carmen in Paris

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Chorus, Childrens’ choir, SoprAlti of Opera and Extras’ Association of Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor). Zurich Opera, 7.4.2024. (MF)

[l-r] Niamh O’Sullivan (Mercédès), Uliana Alexyuk (Frasquita), Marina Viotti (Carmen), Spencer Lang (Le Remendado) and Jean-Luc Ballestra (Le Dancaïre) © Monika Rittershaus

Director – Andreas Homoki
Co-Director and Choreography – Arturo Gama
Set – Paul Zoller
Costumes – Gideon Davey
Lighting – Franck Evin
Dramaturgy – Kathrin Brunner
Chorus master – Janko Kastelic

Carmen – Marina Viotti
Micaëla – Natalia Tanasii
Mercédès – Niamh O’Sullivan
Frasquita – Uliana Alexyuk
Don José – Saimir Pirgu
Escamillo – Łukasz Goliński
Le Remendado – Spencer Lang
Le Dancaïre – Jean-Luc Ballestra
Moralès – Aksel Daveyan
Zuniga – Stanislav Vorobyov

This Carmen does not take place in Spain. Following the vividly performed overture, a man in plain present-day clothes (Saimir Pirgu as Don José) stumbles across the stage which opens towards the rear wall built to resemble that of Opéra Comique in Paris (coproducer of this Carmen with Zurich Opera) with its characteristic steel and brick structure. Lost in time and space, the man picks up the opera’s piano score he finds on the floor. As he wanders about, he studies the printed music and crosses first Carmen (Marina Viotti) and Escamillo (Łukasz Goliński), both in folkloristic colourful costumes, and then Micaëla (Natalia Tanasii), dressed as an 1871 German French wartime nurse. A red and gold curtain rapidly falls, halving the stage, behind which Carmen, Escamillo and Micaëla disappear. The man follows them as he is sucked into the story and his role.

Director Andreas Homoki brings his new Carmen back to where the work had its world premiere in 1875, the Opéra Comique in Paris. He sends this ‘indestructible piece of art’ (Homoki) on a voyage through time. The director describes the production as a homage to this iconic opus’ journey and to the myth of its title hero.

In line with that take, the opening soldiers’ choir is repurposed to represent members of 1870’s Parisian upper middle class who face the audience lit by the houselights, commenting on them as ‘drôles de gens que ces gens-là’. It is then for the children’s choir to turn the lost man into José by replacing his everyday clothes with the brigadier uniform. José slowly finds his way into his role, after clinging onto his score for a bit. Whereas in the second act society is still clad in their 1870’s costumes, the time travel theme is pursued in the third act, set in the 1940’s, and in the final act set in the present day. Carmen is dressed as the typical traveller princess in the first two acts, sports a black leather coat in the third act and, in the fourth, dons the elegant ballgown in which she will die. The only one stuck in time is José, once fitted into his uniform he will no longer change.

While not all directing choices were immediately clear to me, Homoki and his team create a series of beautiful and memorable tableaux. The Botticelli-like apparition of the pyramidally arranged tobacco factory women in a vast cloud of smoke. The deft choreography of the famous smuggler quintet or, at the beginning of the fourth act, the people enjoying the entry of the toreadors on a (admittedly rather small and strangely dated) television set as a public viewing event.

Saimir Pirgu (Don José) and Marina Viotti (Carmen) © Monika Rittershaus

Marina Viotti has her role debut as Carmen. The Swiss born mezzo-soprano with a master’s degree in philosophy and literature is a former heavy metal singer. She represents the title role as a strong and self-assured woman in pursuit of her own beliefs. Viotti’s lyrical voice displays equally forceful expressivity and a Rossini-infused bubbling effervescence. Saimir Pirgu, a seasoned Don José, quite literally seemed to take some time to get into the role. As the offended and duped lover, he ends up powerfully erupting into the violent outbursts against Carmen culminating in the opera history’s most famous femicide. In the final scenes, Pirgu’s metallic timbre immersed the auditorium in poignant emotions.

Moldavian soprano Natalia Tanasii gave a superb rendering of Micaëla. Her character represents the traditional, mother-dominated side of José’s inner state and Bizet gave her the beautiful bel canto parts which Tanasii filled with heartfelt goodness. The former member of the Zurich Opera International Opera Studio programme created a time-suspending moment of supreme beauty with her ‘Je dis que rien m’épouvante’. Łukasz Goliński’s Escamillo did not quite discharge the full load of testosterone the role has to offer. The remaining characters, namely Niamh O’Sullivan as Mercédès, Uliana Alexyuk as Frasquita and Jean-Luc Ballestra as Le Dancaïre all gave solid performances. With the many spoken parts, it was particularly pleasing to have Viotti and Ballestra as native French speakers in the cast.

Both choruses, the Zurich Opera Chorus and the Children’s Chorus, complemented with members of Zurich Opera’s SoprAlti, were on point and partook in the action with palpable excitement.

Gianandrea Noseda and the Philharmonia Zurich span the wide arch of Bizet’s score, ranging from retrospect Gounod-style old school opera to a forward-looking three-dimensionality depicting the societal development at the time. Noseda forcefully emphasizes the colliding characters and attitudes of this evocative and full-blooded theatre music. The orchestra’s brilliant sound remains transparent even in the tutti scenes, accompanying and complementing the singers with intelligence.

Further performances run until 15 June 2024.

Michael Fischer

Leave a Comment