She sings for herself

carmen-blo1

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.

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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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Carmen in Philly: Another mantilla bites the dust

Last night the Opera Company of Philadelphia opened their 2011-12 season at the Academy of Music with Carmen. For the first time the performance was broadcast to a big screen out on Independence Mall for an audience of reportedly 5,500 people. They got a standard Carmen elevated to memorable by a few great performances, namely Rinat Shaham’s fantastic gypsy and Ailyn Pérez’s gorgeous Micaëla.

Bizet, Carmen. Opera Company of Philadelphia, 9/30/2011. Production by David Gately, conducted by Corrado Rovaris with Rinat Shaham (Carmen), David Pomeroy (Don José), Ailyn Pérez (Micaëla), Jonathan Beyer (Escamillo).

Maybe it was the free champagne before the show (doled out in tiny portions in plastic cups) that made the audience punchy.  I don’t think of Carmen as a particularly funny opera (you know, he kills her) but evidently the people of Philadelphia disagree with me on this one, the gens certainly found the opera drôle. David Gately’s production does tend towards the opéra-comique side of things and has a few bits that are clearly intended as comedy. I liked the soldiers threatening the children to get them to stop singing, I can’t stand those squeaky buggers. But for the most part the production has everything you would expect to have in Carmen and nothing that you would not. It is a truth universally acknowledged in traditional Carmens that Don José will attempt to rip off Carmen’s mantilla in the final scene. Check. One pleasant surprise was that the production uses spoken dialogue rather than recits. Some of the spoken French was iffy, but it’s still the right choice, I think (cough Met uses recits cough).

The heart of this production is Rinat Shaham’s Carmen. She’s very experienced in this role and you can tell. Her super-smart Carmen is two steps ahead of everyone else, is always doing as she likes and never tries harder than she has to (without ever appearing uninvolved). This extended to her singing, which had a beautiful naturalness. She never pushed her dark mezzo and her French sounded very idiomatic to me. She’s got a real deep mezzo timbre, but never sounds stretched at the top. Everything worked together and convinced, plus she has that wit and spark that keeps her sympathetic and human. (Also I think it is hilarious how she wears way more clothes in this production than she did when I saw her in Salome…  as the Page.)

None of the other cast members had this level of polish and effortlessness. Closest was Ailyn Pérez’s Micaëla. I think this was the first time I’ve heard her (I may have heard her at AVA but I’m not sure) and her rich, warm lyric soprano sounds like the real deal. All she needs to do is iron out some wayward high notes and odd French vowels and she’ll be there. Less satisfying was David Pomeroy’s blank Don José. He has a large, even and strong voice (pulling an effective “démon” in the final scene), but showed little musicality or range of color, hitting the “toi” in the flower song at forte. His acting was indicated and uncommitted. My last two Josés were Alagna and Kaufmann so I may be spoiled but he did nothing for me. Jonathan Beyer did a good job managing the tricky tessitura of Escamillo, however he never stood out from the scenery. Escamillo needs flair.

Corrado Rovaris led the orchestra in an effective if not quite electrifying interpretation. I’ve heard this unreliable orchestra many times and was happy that they were having a good night. The chorus also sounded excellent, though their stage direction left a lot to be desired. The set, a brownish Seville square with a high walkway, seemed to suffer a paucity of entrances and exits, and once the chorus finally had finished entering, they tended to stay put, sometimes grabbing the nearest member of the opposite sex when required to act amorous.

Director Gately opens the curtain at the “fate” part of the prélude to discover Carmen reading her cards. While it is true to the letter of the libretto–she says that the cards have already told her she and José will die together–I find it problematic for two reasons. First, it deprives her of her great first appearance later in the opera–doesn’t that music that opens the Habañera give us a better sketch of her character than this? Shaham made a wonderful physical entrance running on at that point, seeing her sitting still, no matter how intensely, is just not as compelling an introduction.

PREVIOUSLY REVIEWED
Carmen at the Met (1)
Aldrich/Kaufmann
 Carmen at the Met (2)
Garanca/Alagna
 Carmen at the Met (3)
Borodina/Alvarez (old production)

Second, this is a very literal production. After reading the cards, Carmen hears other people approaching and gets up and leaves. But what motivates those people to enter? The curtain usually comes up on a crowd that’s already there, they’ve just been hanging out. Here they process on for some unknown reason. And how did Carmen get out of the cigarette factory into the square to read her cards in the first place? Judging by that bell, they’ve got quite a routine there. So even if you want to see Carmen as a Violetta type who knows she’s doomed, and I’m not going to argue with you about that as a valid interpretation, this is not the way to portray that. Maybe if it weren’t framed so literally–for example just happening in a bare spot that fades out instead of having her exit as people arrive–it would work better.

I would also like to note that this production included the return of the Set Piece of the Damned, which I first saw in this company’s production of Richard Danielpour’s opera Margaret Garner. This set piece is an electric campfire with a visible electrical cord that has been visibly taped down to the stage, here appearing (in duplicate, even) in Act 3. I cursed the thing then, and I do again now. The amount of incredibly visible (from the high-up Amphitheater) glow tape is also a problem–you can be safe while also being a little more subtle than that.

This may sound like quibbling, but maybe these small issues have something to do with the audience never being able to take it seriously and giggling through the whole thing. Such carelessness with details detracts from the total emotional effect. (Remember that I am that person who is convinced that Velcro is the Scourge of Opera.) This is also a way of explanation for my Anna Bolena review. I seemed to like David McVicar’s production more than anyone else, and this is probably surprising to you if you know my general dislike of traditionalism. But I think McVicar, for all his dullness in this one, doesn’t often make this kind of dramaturgical mistake, and the Anna Bolena held together in a way that is very difficult to achieve in bel canto, or actually in any opera. This Carmen lapsed on that count, and never seemed quite worthy of its protagonist. I was left a little underwhelmed, which is a bummer.

I received a lot of my early operatic education as an Opera Company of Philadelphia subscriber while I was in university, and I saw the company through a lot of ups and downs.* I think they’re on a bit of an up right now, but it’s a little hard to judge by one show. Just toss those electric campfires onto a real fire somewhere and keep on trucking, guys.

Carmen continues through October 14, you can get tickets here.

 The Academy lighting seems just right for curtain call photos, here it is (from the high-up Amphitheater, in this photo you can see at the top the giant safety bar that cuts the view of the stage in half when you sit in one of the first few rows):

*I didn’t see their previous Carmen but it was by all accounts a down, with an interpolated private eye character informing us that “this Carmen girl, she’s from the wrong side of the tracks.”

Top and third photo from OCP website, copyright unknown. Shaham/Pomeroy photo copyright Philadelphia Enquirer.

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