A Carmen for the twenty-first century at Glyndebourne

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glyndebourne Festival 2024 – Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Children’s Chorus (members of Glyndebourne Youth Opera and Trinity Boys Choir), Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Robin Ticciati (conductor). Glyndebourne, Lewes, E. Sussex, 16.5.2024. (MM-B)

Carmen (Rihab Chaieb), Zuniga (Dingle Yandell) and Glyndebourne Chorus (rear) © Richard Hubert Smith

Director – Diane Paulus
Set designer – Riccardo Hernández
Costume designer – Evie Gurney
Lighting designer – Malcolm Rippeth
Choreographer – Jasmin Vardimon
Fight director – Bret Yount
Chorus director – Aidan Oliver

Carmen – Rihab Chaieb
Don José – Dmytro Popov
Escamillo – Dmitry Cheblykov
Micaëla – Sofia Fomina
Zuniga – Dingle Yandell
Frasquita – Elisabeth Boudreault
Mercédès – Kezia Bienek
Moralès – Alex Otterburn
Lillas Pastia – Estéban Lecoq
Le Dancaïre – Loïc Félix
Le Remendado – François Piolino
Guide – John Mackenzie-Lavansch
Singing Children – Glyndebourne Youth Opera and Trinity Boys Choir
Dancers – Camilla Curiel, Marta Gimeno Nafria, Jess Hull, Thomas Kerek, Lewis James and Andrea Paniagua

Glyndebourne’s new production of Bizet’s Carmen opened their 2024 Festival and comes with two different casts, now and then at the end of the festival. The first Carmen is Tunisian-Canadian mezzo Rihab Chaieb and the second will be the fabulous mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetschina from the Republic of Bashkortostan in Russia. This new production is credited to American Tony Award winner director Diane Paulus. Her Carmen is different from all other ‘Carmens’ I have seen. To begin with, it could be set in Seville or in any other place in Spain, or France or Portugal or Mexico since these are countries (that I know of) where bullfights still exist. If one leaves the bullfight and the toreador aside, it could really be anywhere. Gone are the colourful, flying skirts of the gypsy women or the sun-drenched, bright buildings so typical of Spain and Southern Europe. This is a gutsy, brave, non-conformist kind of Carmen – one for the twenty-first century. In an interview, included in the Glyndebourne Festival programme book, Paulus states that she was inspired by the uprising of women in Iran who removed their hijabs and took to the streets with the slogan ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ on posters. She says and I quote, ‘I saw these repeated references to freedom attached to women whose lives are in danger and under threat, and I was inspired by that.’ Paulus succeeds most of the time in demonstrating this throughout the opera and also in showing that although we are in 2024, violence against women is sadly still a reality.

Carmen (centre front, Rihab Chaieb) and Glyndebourne Chorus © Richard Hubert Smith

Act I with the cigarette factory is perhaps the most obvious, regarding oppression of women in particular and people in general. The factory looks more like a prison. In fact, the women come out for their break into a sort of cage. The door is unlocked and locked by one of the soldiers. The soldiers with guns on the roof of the factory and the street around it hint at a heavily policed, military state. This is enhanced by a real police truck coming on the stage and bringing the change of the guard. In fact, some of the settings here reminded me of the horrible, sad images we see in the news of the war in the Ukraine or the war between Israel and Hamas, depicting the horrendous suffering of the people of the Ukraine and Gaza. To me personally, I thought it was a step too far. Also, when Carmen sings of la liberté (freedom) the scene is politicised in so far as Carmen and various characters lift their right, closed fists up in the air which of course symbolises resistance to oppression. It is in line with the Carmen that Paulus tries to create and it does succeed. However, I felt a bit divided about this. I think it is introducing too many politics in a tale of passion, jealousy, obsession and of a self-confident, independent woman who defies the domineering men and is conscious of her sexual power.

Ultimately, in my opinion, Carmen and opera in general are culture but also entertainment, often escapism. Too much reality can spoil it. For sad, unpleasant real life we have the news every single day. Having said that, it doesn’t mean I thought the production was bad.

Act II in the tavern, shows a place that could be a tavern or a disco/brothel anywhere in the world and not necessarily in Spain. The colours of the lights are a good contrast to the dark mood of the place and dark furniture. There is no stylised flamenco dancing here. It is a modern choreography with arms and legs thrown about where the dancers at times appear slightly drunk. The toreador makes a big entrance as he should. However, he is depicted as a thug, with tattoos and a pack of muscles. It works with Paulus’s concept but it is difficult to imagine a real bullfighter like that. Paulus’s toreador lacks the elegance, the skill and the seduction power of a real bullfighter. And although I am not a fan of bullfights and don’t actually agree with them, having seen a few, years ago, the image of the toreador in Paulus’s production appeared to me all wrong.

Acts III and IV are to my mind much more effective. The camp site of the smugglers is brilliantly constructed with tents, the distant mountains and an observation tower. In Act IV we actually see the back of the benches of the arena where people sit when they go in for the bullfight. It is impressive and works extremely well. There is no parade of the participants in the bullfight. They are preceded by a group of dancers and here the choreography is excellent and very expressive. Then, instead of the parade, we are told about it from the perspective of the crowds watching. Again, it is insightful and brilliant though at times there was too much onstage ‘crowd noise’ which almost overwhelmed the singing and was consistently heard above the toreador’s march performed by the orchestra. Don José of course kills Carmen in the end but unlike most productions I have seen, he doesn’t stab her. Instead he strangles her with his tie. There is no blood, but her death is slower, more disturbing, graphically depicting the violence of a physically stronger man against a woman and therefore shocking and distressing, which in my opinion is what Paulus intended.

With the opening of this year’s Glyndebourne Festival they celebrated their 90th birthday; the LPO celebrated 60 years of being the Festival’s resident orchestra; and their chief conductor and director of music, Robin Ticciati, celebrated 20 years (ten as musical director) of conducting at Glyndebourne where he started in 2004 as assistant conductor on the Glyndebourne Tour. He was conducting his first Carmen with the LPO. His reading of the score appeared to me dramatically powerful and intense. I think both he and the RPO were at their very best and delivered an outstanding, extraordinary performance of Bizet’s rather beautiful score. The Glyndebourne Chorus was as always simply magnificent. Aidan Oliver, their director, is a brilliant, charismatic musician and a terrific chorus master. I hope he will last many more years at Glyndebourne, as his shoes will be very difficult to fill.

It was a young, impressive, exceptionally good cast, particularly mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb as Carmen and Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov as Don José. She has a beautiful colourful tone, with a darker shade in its lower register and soaring, unfading, warm high notes. Dramatically she is a good, expressive actor and portrays a courageous, defying, independent Carmen to perfection. Her Habanera is seductive, dangerous but somehow also shows her vulnerability. Her superstition in the aria when she reads her own death in the cards comes clearly across but also her bravery. In the final scenes before Don José kills her, her courage, defiance in the face of danger and love for her freedom and independence show not only force of character and a strong personality but also a woman who is prepared to live and die on her own terms – unconventional and empowered, at times poignant and sensitive. Chaieb also has a clear French pronunciation and good enunciation which enhance the character and the singing.

Don José, sung by Dmytro Popov, is here a more introverted, tormented character than in other productions. Paulus says in her interview that she was more interested in Don José’s psychology than anything else. I think she fully achieved a psychologically intense portrayal of José. Popov owns a great, dramatic voice with an extensive range and powerful ringing high notes. His acting is excellent too. His José comes across as a complex character, capable of great tenderness but also of jealous rage and violence when angry. His rendition of La fleur que tu m’avais jetée is simply beautiful and moving. His French is a little unclear and nasal at times. He seems to struggle slightly with the language, especially in the beginning which was mildly distracting. He actually got better as the opera progressed, seeming more comfortable as his singing received well-deserved applause from the public.

Escamillo, sung by Russian bass-baritone Dmitry Cheblykov, is portrayed in a rather unusual manner. Cheblykov is an exceptionally good singer, with a beautiful warm tone, a charismatic stage presence and excellent acting skills. He made the most of his character but Escamillo in this production is not depicted as the elegant, brave, suave seducer. The toreador is like a movie star, especially in Spain. Men admire him for being handsome, skilful, courageous and attractive to the opposite sex. Women feel attracted to him for the same reasons. Escamillo is sexy but in this production he is none of that. Cheblykov manages to show some of these characteristics through his singing though they are in stark contrast to a personality depicted as a vain brute of sorts, brainless and full of muscles. In fact he is a bit of a caricature, almost comical when he first makes his entrance in the Lillas Pastia’s tavern. I don’t know whether that is what Paulus intended but if yes, she succeeded.

The other minor characters were all very well sung, especially Sofia Fomina, as Micaëla, who has a lovely voice, suitably tender and sad; Dingle Yandell, as Zuniga, with a powerful voice and a marking stage presence, and Elisabeth Boudreault as Frasquita, owner of a potent soprano voice whose high notes easily stand out from the whole when singing as part of the ensemble.

Lighting design by Malcolm Rippeth, set design by Riccardo Hernández and costume design by Evie Gurney serve well the director’s purpose of creating a Carmen for the twenty-first century, fighting against oppression and for her freedom. I wouldn’t describe either of the designs as beautiful, colourful or memorable but they are effective and serve the production exceptionally well.

I think Glyndebourne and Paulus succeeded with this new production of Carmen and did justice to Bizet’s score. I don’t know what the composer would have made of it but perhaps as his concept was revolutionary at the time, he might have loved it. I enjoyed the evening very much though I must admit I missed some of the ‘Spanish clichés’ like the Sevillanas’s dresses with their flying skirts, the bright colours and sun-drenched settings. My favourite Carmen, which I have only seen on DVD as I was too young then to even think about opera, is an old production from 1967, conducted by Herbert von Karajan with the Wiener Philharmoniker, the magnificent American mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry as Carmen, Jon Vickers as Don José, Mirella Freni as Micaëla and Justino Diaz as Escamillo.

Overall, I would say that this new Carmen was a first-rate opening of Glyndebourne Festival 2024 though the production is not one of my favourites but it has merit and the audience loved it, judging by the standing ovation at the end. It is definitely a splendid – and worthy – way to begin the celebrations of the Festival’s 90 years in existence, the 60 years of the LPO’s involvement and Robin Ticciati’s anniversary of being Glyndebourne’s Music Director.

Margarida Mota-Bull

Featured image: Don José (Dmytro Popov) and Carmen (Rihab Chaieb) © Richard Hubert Smith

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