I love Carmen. It's the score that does it for me, rather than the drama - the endless invention, bright, bold energy and simplicity, and wonderful scoring. The way Bizet uses what should be in theory rather superficial, banal material to such brilliantly subtle, and often genuinely unnerving dramatic ends, is quite unique in 19th century opera. For these reasons, in purely musical terms I would personally put it above any of Verdi's operas. I do not dismiss Verdi's undeniable dramatic potency, warm humanity and even inspiration, but Bizet unquestionably has the larger musical range. I sometimes have issues with the way Verdi just accepts his materials whole sale and it doesn't occur to him to truly subvert or undermine his Italian opera conventions - his many innovations are very much in line with what's come before and there's something wilful and very strange about his refusal to engage with what was going on around him musically at the time. Bizet is constantly pushing his rather conventional material to new expressive ends, and he finds so many solutions while maintaining a very strong overall profile, that I just delight in hearing the work every time I see it.
Where Carmen fails for me a bit is that I find it hard to care about the characters. They're all well drawn and develop well, and the dramatic situations are true and pure, but I find none that sympathetic, except maybe Carmen herself (though only in some productions). And so it was here - Bieito does a very good job of telling the story, but he still didn't make me care that much about any of the characters. Still this is a good production, and I was surprised by how uninterventionist it was. Yes it's updated and yes there's a bit
of nudity and violence, but largely it just tells the story, and does it mostly very well.
What is particularly striking about this production is its visual aspects (designer Alfons Flores) which are brilliantly atmospheric, strongly imagined and very cohesive; Bruno Poet's lighting too really adds something special. Bieito creates some very powerful images in this setting - Carmen is tied to the flag pole (an obvious phallic symbol), but it seems to be not Carmen but Don José who cannot leave, held by invisible restraints. Though she of course escapes, Bieito is keen to remind us that usually women aren't so lucky at the hands of men, and at the end of the scene dishevelled and presumably just violated woman is hounded by a gang of men and then strung up shrieking on the flag pole. In the final scene, Carmen's showdown with Don José is more directly linked to the bullfight in visual terms than I have ever seen before, and Don José, the miserable victor, drags Carmen away like the beast that has been slain inside the walls of the stadium.
The societal alienation, and latent critique of violent societies (that is all societies in Bieito's mind) which is the bread and butter of Bieito's usual approach is relative background here - perhaps he is treading lightly as the society in question is gypsy culture and criticising gypsy culture is not really very PC. Maybe I just expected something more jarring and disturbing. In this, Bieito's vision of lower class Spain, women are always shrieking, and men are always laughing - they're largely a rather inarticulate horde, apart from the tortured principal trio who are sort of trapped by the idiots, but it's also not clear that they're so different. There's a subplot about the underage sexualisation of young girls in this society, and so presumably we're meant to surmise that this was Carmen's (and Frasquita's and Mercédès etc. etc.) upbringing too - she can't help expressing herself in sexual terms, and though she does have a specially potent power over men, she has less autonomy here than in productions which see her as dangerously different from her sisters. This is especially apparent in the final scene where she seems not irritated, but sort of at a loss with Don José's ardency, not quite understanding his infatuation - is she incapable of understanding love?
There are a few mildly irritating tropes. Bieito indulges in a bit of McVicar-ian gay fantasy wish fulfilment - in Spain there is apparently an endless supply of shirtless muscle bound hunks in the army, that are constantly engaged in horseplay and tactile mateyness. The gorgeous Entr'acte no.2 contains the sole piece of full male nudity - another perfectly sculpted male specimen consecrates the bull ring with an incongruously graceful dance, considering he's a soldier. There's a bit of cartoonish gangstery violence when the Dancaire and Remendado kick Zuniga to death, then urinate on him* - not at all suggested in the music, and it also doesn't register ironically as a disgusting act set to jolly music - it just comes across as vaguely ludicrous and insignificant. Maybe the lack of shock value is meant to be the point? I doubt it.
Musically things are mixed. Ruxandra Donose is in some ways an odd choice as Carmen. She sings the part very beautifully indeed, with her exceptionally rich and even vocal production, and she's a good actress too. But, the lack of timbral variation means she ends up sounding like an old school english contralto, with nowhere near enough sex in the voice. She isn't helped by the unsexy translation, it must be said. Still she's my pick of the singers here. Adam Diegel, her Don José is OK, but the voice becomes pressured, nasal and incomprehensible in its upper reaches. Acting wise he has very little presence despite his burly physique and his spoken lines are wooden and forced.
Elizabeth Llewellyn's Micaela got the biggest ovation, and it is a very lovely voice in a rather generic way - it's a dark, yet ripe sound, and she doesn't let a note go by that isn't fully formed and voluptuous. However, and though it sort of pains me to say it, it wasn't enough for me and I found her performance rather bland - there's too little character on the stage, or in the voice. When you can sing this well, there needs to be some risk taking.
Leigh Melrose was a weak Toreador (Escamillo), vocally completely wayward stylistically, and nowhere near enough of the alpha male that the character's music and text suggests. Rhian Lois' Frasquita was the best of the supporting cast - the little she gets to sing was all dispatched beautifully, and I'd like to see her in a meatier role.
Though my seat meant I barely heard anything of the first half orchestrally (I moved for the second half), Ryan Wigglesworth seemed to have a firm hold on the score, especially in shaping the unsettling undertones that shine through the brilliant surface. Occasionally the ensembles and choruses came unstuck timing wise, but largely this was a fine reading I thought, energetic and vivacious.
Overall a worthwhile evening, though I wasn't that excited by any of the voices. Roberto Alagna was in the audience with Aleksandra Kurzak (taking a break from their L'Elisir run at the ROH) - perhaps surprisingly, Alagna has also sung in this production in an earlier incarnation. Cherie Blair was also in the audience - obviously controversial European Regie theatre is her thing.**
*forgot the urination thing before.
** I've been informed that her youngest son was in the children's chorus.