She sings for herself

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On Friday, Boston beheld the East Coast debut of Calixto Bieito, and Boston giggled nervously.

That’s right, the Boston Lyric Opera held an opening night gala marking the company’s return to the Boston Opera House, featuring Skandalregisseur Calixto Bieito’s modernized, de-romanticized, decidedly un-gala-like production of Carmen, and the evening dress audience somehow survived to tell the tale, albeit with an enormous amount of awkward tittering at one-liners like “Your mother is dying!” As Bieito goes, it’s pretty mild stuff. With listless conducting and some subpar singing, this evening was more tepid than shocking. The performance was not, however, without its moments.

Bizet, Carmen. Boston Lyric Opera, 9/23/16. Production directed by Calixto Bieito, US co-production with the San Francisco Opera. Conducted by David Angus with Jennifer Johnson Cano (Carmen), Roger Honeywell (Don José), Chelsea Basler (Micaëla), Michael Mayes (Escamillo)

This is vintage Bieito, which is not to say that it is a distillation of his best qualities, which it isn’t, but that it is old. It debuted in 1999 and has popped up somewhere every few years since, from Paris to London to, most recently, San Francisco. (The use of a phone booth in Act 1 dates it a bit; I believe that Micaëla and Don José taking selfies is a more recent addition.) Bieito did not stage this iteration; it is the work of revival director Joan Anton Rechi. Bieito is known for a kind of violent, highly sexualized sensory overload. If you want to read about that, I recently saw his Mahagonny in Antwerp and have written about his most famous production, Die Entfühurung aus dem Serail in Berlin.

You only get a hint of that excess in this Carmen, which tends to imply more than it shows. (There was, as far as I can tell, no booing.) But I can understand why it’s the director’s most widely produced work: most people are willing to acknowledge that Carmen is violent and unpleasant and thus are willing to entertain a production which still is hard-edged and aggressively modern. Bieito also tells the story in a straightforward way without any drastic departures from convention. (The most notable change is that Carmen doesn’t throw her flower at Don José at all and therefore doesn’t appear to select him. Instead, he goes and picks it up.)

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The setting is Ceuta, a modern Spanish city in North Africa, and other than Spanish flags we’ve lost most of the local color and all the exotica. The sets are by Alfons Flores. Act 1 presents a highly militarized society of men; the most memorable image is a single soldier running in circles around the set’s central flagpole, wearing only underwear, until he almost collapses. This circle image recurs near the beginnings of Acts 2 and 4 too, a gesture of both futility and containment. In contrast, the factory women, wearing khaki work uniforms, seem totally uninterested in the men. In one interesting image, they sing their opening chorus sitting on the edge of the stage, facing us, the men fighting to get their attention but unable to make any eye contact. Later, we get the obligatory abuse of a single woman by the whole regiment.

Carmen herself was played by Jennifer Johnson Cano as a self-conscious, self-possessed manipulator, one who loses her cool only quite a bit later in the opera. I like this interpretation, but I don’t think Johnson Cano quite carried it off; too often she simply seemed low key. This cool was exaggerated by conductor David Angus’s extremely leisurely tempos, which made both the Habañera and the Seguildilla seem relaxed and, sometimes, almost lethargic. Johnson Johnson Cano sang smoothly and evenly, never sounding ugly, with a nice rich mezzo tone, but she lacked some force and rhythmic energy.

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In Act 2, I realized this is the Cliff’s Notes version of Carmen, with so much of the dialogue and/or recit cut that numbers seem to pop out of nowhere, unmotivated. The gypsies drive around in an old Mercedes (more cars show up in Act 3, all Mercedeses; I got the joke at one point and almost audibly groaned) and enjoy what could maybe be called a debauched lifestyle, complete with cooler, beach chair, and a tiny tree. Escamillo is a gangster/banker/something wearing a fancy suit.

In fact, most of the inner two acts are fairly conventional. Except for some Regietheater dance moves and updating of gypsy crime, it could be pasted into a period production without much mishap. The most interesting material is in the crowd scenes of the first and last acts. The last act begins with Act 3’s giant bull cutout tipped over and dismantled, which I guess could be a metaphor for the deconstruction of the opera and/or the patriarchy, but doesn’t the patriarchy win in this one? I mean, like it usually does?

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But then Act 4, more interestingly, features us, the audience, as the spectacle which the crowd has come to see. They crowd to get a look at the auditorium beyond the pit. This is kind of an old Regie trick but I admit it’s one of my favorites, and it was particularly interesting here, because the casually dressed cast was pointing and laughing at a formally dressed audience which had spent most of the evening pointing and laughing at them. It revealed an unreconciled gap between a production like this one and the context in which it was being presented. This production is not glamorous. Not only is it violent, but its intentionally cheap visuals don’t have anything like the theatrical bravado or polish of someone like Stefan Herheim or even Olivier Py or Mariusz Trelínski. (Even most Bieito productions offer much more visual attraction than this one.) The audience, however, showed up ready for the splendors of a gala—I think the constant, inappropriate nervous laughter can at least in part be chalked up to gala alcohol— and the results were a little awkward.

I think that kind of special event energy can also be generated by an intense performance of any type, even of a raw production like this, but that didn’t really happen here. The direction, while not terrible, didn’t have the kind of focus or committment I associate with Bieito’s work, and the singing was not great. As Don José, Roger Honeywell sounded weak and dry, with no legato or ring in the voice and every high note cut short. His acting was also rather milquetoast, showing some violence but no real menace, or much else.

As Micaela, Chelsea Basler fared much better, singing with flowing musicality, though it sounded like she was pushing a light lyric soprano to its limit. (Somewhat uncharitable side note: if you haven’t seen the DVD of this production from its Liceu iteration, I highly recommend it solely for Marina Poplavskaya’s incredible, almost tragic Micaëla.) Michael Mayes went for a Jonah Ryan look as Escamillo and had the tessitura problems you hear every time anyone sings this role, but sounded like he has a decent lower baritone. In supporting soldier roles Moralès and Zuniga, Vincent Turregano and Liam Moran channeled the Bieito style more than most. Coordination between orchestra and pit was touch and go at times, and from my seat partway back on the main floor (just under the edge of the overhang), I could barely hear the strings at all. (This orchestra sounded good at last March’s Werther, but things weren’t quite there in this case.)

I think presenting this production was, ultimately, a good and laudable move for Boston Lyric Opera, but the execution wasn’t strong enough to draw any kind of conclusion about whether Boston is Ready for This. (Regietheater, obviously, is a problematic term in itself which encompasses many different things, and I don’t mean to imply a kind of binary situation here) The question itself is kind of patronizing and condescending—this is the city which filled a hall for Dimitrij last week—but the dissonance between the desert of Act 1’s stage and the gala audience’s expectations, and between the marketing of this production as cutting-edge and shocking and its lukewarm reality are still jarring.

If you want to experience the Bieito, such that it is, Carmen runs through next weekend.

Previously in Carmen:

Philadelphia hits the notes you expect

A weird and gleeful Herheim production in Graz

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2 Comments

  1. I actually love this production and I think the DVD has some of the best acting on an opera DVD, the two women especially. I imagine that with the director on board it would have been tighter and a bit more exciting.

    1. I like that DVD a lot too, but as you say, so much of what makes it great is the acting, and that part just doesn’t seem to have made the trip to Boston.

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