Carmen: Stefan Herheim’s night at the museum

“Oh no! The art has escaped again!” So yelps a diminutive curator by the name of Lillas Pastia when he goes downstairs to check on the storage room in his museum. He sees the remnants of “Les triangles des sistres tintaient,” but we just saw all of it: a panopoly of characters from paintings, opera, and literature–many of them femme fatales–who have broken free from their authors to perform a rousing song and dance number. There’s Salome with the head (she premiered in Graz, natch), Mona Lisa, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth I, a Degas dancer, Marianne with her tricoleur, and, er, Jesus.

So what does this have to do with Carmen? Rather a lot, actually. This production (first seen in 2006 and now in its first revival) probably helped Stefan Herheim earn the reputation for being incomprehensible, but if you can keep up there’s a fascinating dissection of the nature of artistic representation, gender roles and a lot more. Plus it’s a ton of fun. Rarely has the explication of Nietzsche employed so much glitter.

Bizet, Carmen. Oper Graz, 6/27/12. Production by Stefan Herheim (revival) with new dialogue by Stefan Herheim and Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach. Conducted by Johannes Fritzsch with Kirstin Chavez (Carmen), Jean-Pierre Furlan (Don Jose), David McShane (Escamillo), Gal James (Micaela).

As usual, I will add more photos to this post when I’m working on internet that doesn’t have a clock on it. In the meantime you can see a gallery here.

The basic conceit of this production is simple. The setting is an art museum, where Don Jose is a security guard and Carmen is a cleaning lady. The action is a series of fantasies inspired by and happening in the paintings surrounding them. The big idea–that we are shaped by the artistic representations that our culture values (or, in this museum, even enshrines), and those who produce those images wield inordinate power–is familiar from many Regietheater stagings, but the twist from a self-reflexive theater setting to a museum of paintings allows all sorts of fresh tricks and twists. (Laurent Pelly also used a museum setting in his more recent Paris Giulio Cesare, which I haven’t seen.) 

Much of the staging is quite witty. The opening chorus is sung by an ordinary crowd of museumgoers admiring the funny people in the paintings; the children’s chorus is a school group on a field trip. Don Jose’s regiment tumbles out of a canvas depicting them. The men describing the cigarette women emerging from their factory are a troupe of artists armed with palettes and giant berets, and the women appear with a cloud of steam (it’s an ironic cloud of steam, but as I recall in Francesca Zambello’s ROH production the ladies enter here with a non-ironic cloud, alas). Yet while the cloud produces gypsies, the artists are all painting images of the ultimate Virgin, Mary.

Carmen isn’t just Don Jose’s fantasy, she is enjoying her own fantasy of freedom as well, having a good time with her Habanera and taking control of Don Jose by painting the flower onto his uniform. (He finally smashes a Mary painting to great shock from all surrounding.) Micaela is a prim modern girl, not from a painting, but the fight between the two groups of women plays out between an army of Micaela doubles and an army of Carmens. The women definitely have it harder than the men when it comes to living with these images–and among the women only Carmen manages to wield a paintbrush herself.

Herheim has given himself the liberty to rewrite all of the spoken text to fit this scenario, though many familiar parts remain. The second act, taking place in the museum’s basement, shows the representations free from their creators. Escamillo similarly emerges from a painting. The act is most spectacularly interrupted by some chatter from Carmen and Micaela’s opera queen drag doubles, who alternately seem like a pair of Parterre commenters enjoying exceptional sympathy with the opera’s characters, arguing about the outcome of the plot and anticipating the tenor aria as well as a burlesque dialogue version of Der Fall Wagner. They are, in fact, Dancairo and Remendado, who need the fun ladies Frasquita, Mercedes, and Carmen. The act ends with all the representations holding their own canvuses proclaiming their liberty–with Marianne waving her flag in the middle, of course.

The third and fourth acts (I’ve always thought it was four, though the program lists the third as having two scenes) loses a bit of steam, though there are some spectacular moments. The characters retreat into a pastoral landscape painting (we also see a mise en abyme of endless frames within frames), but all does not go well. Fortune in the form of cards rain down from above, and Escamillo and Don Jose appear as doubles (a must in any Herheim production). Micaela, a refugee from reality, is rather out of place and is casually shot by Escamillo (my distinguished operagoing companion thought this was hilarious, but I’ve always liked Micaela and felt bad for her). The last act presents us with Don Jose attempting to paint his own portrait of Carmen to get her back (through some kind of cheesy projections, he seems to found abstract art at this point), and the crowd of observers appear in an amphitheater setting mirroring us, the audience, observing (an old but nonetheless effective Regie trick dating back to Hans Neuenfels’s Aida if not earlier to Wieland Wagner). The security guard and the cleaning lady aren’t the only ones influenced by representation, we are too, as we watch Carmen. In a final, mind-bending trick, Escamillo has painted Carmen as she really is, as a cleaning lady. Don’t ask what this means, this is a Gerheheimnis to me right now, but it’s fascinating in a lot of different ways.

It’s one of those productions that you would ideally see twice to get all the detail, but it’s thrilling and exhilarating to see it all go by even if you don’t get all of it. It’s busy, and relating the conventional plot as such isn’t high on the agenda, but what’s there is mostly fabulous. As distinguished operagoing companion noted, it seemed to draw primarily from two sources: Susan McClary and Nietzsche. If you ask me, that’s a combination not be discounted. Unlike some other operas that are Regie bait (Lohengrin, anyone?), Carmen is rarely subject to directorial creativity greater than changing the time period, so this fresh insight is especially welcome here.

The Oper Graz has done a great job of reviving this production, Christiane Lutz’s direction is sharp and detailed. Kristin Chavez’s Carmen and Jean-Pierre Furlan return from the first run while the rest of the cast is, I believe, new. Both Chavez and Furlan are excellent actors but probably sounded fresher in the 2006 run. Chavez’s spicy mezzo was unevenly projected much of the time, but when she smoothed it out showed a warm, sensual sound. Occasional scoops and slides made me wonder if her inspiration was a chanson singer, but it mostly worked. Furlan’s sinewy tenor has, sometimes, brutal force, but it’s a rough sound and not too flexible. His French was, at least, excellent. Not so David McShane’s as Escamillo, which sounded too high for him. Gal James as Micaela was the best singer in the cast, though her silvery soprano sounds more Straussian than Bizetian. Supporting roles were solid. Unfortunately the Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester remains a weakness of this house and is lacking in precision, particularly in the strings. Johannes Fritzsch’s conducting kept things together at reasonable tempos.

This production is a treat and it’s a shame it’s so obscure. You want to stage a good Carmen, New York City Opera?

Photo(s) copyright Karl Forster.

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1 Comment

  1. I do hope ‘distinguished’ is intended in an ironic Herheim kind of way. Anyway thanks for writing about this and Don Carlo so brilliantly so I don’t have to.