Picture Credit: Camilla Greenwell

Poor old Carmen

This update of a classic from the Royal Opera House is a reminder of why messing with great pieces is so risky

Artillery Row On Opera

Poor old Carmen! This one is more grist to the mill of anyone who believes the last people on earth who should be directing operas are opera directors. To be fair, I do see their (self-imposed) problem. Opera is full of old pieces like this one (from 1875) that simply look preposterous under any sort of modern eye. That’s why the popular drama of the 19th century is so completely unstageable — we’d die laughing at the rubbish our great-great-grandparents solemnly sat through. But opera unnaturally preserves these impossible old dinosaurs (even if transmuted to gold by their music) and if opera houses are to survive, and put on the dreadful purgatorial stuff they evidently really want us to watch, they need to fill up the seats by bringing out these old-time bankers that everyone loves. They can’t in conscience (they tell us) do it as a period piece, an innocent fantasy of a past, a time and place that after all never existed — that would be a dereliction of their alleged duty to show how modern and relevant all this old crap is. So the poor old director has to update the thing and, for want of any better ideas, turn it into the same old lecture about not stabbing your girlfriend (no, you at the back, nor strangling either), as though the audience of greyhairs, foreigners and wedding-anniversary celebrants were on some kind of Young Offenders’ rehab session.

Sure, it’s just a lurid Orientalist fever dream. But that can still yield much of interest

It’s such a bizarre idea, actually mad, to take this torrid, semi-comic sun-and-sex shocker of the Second Empire (in fact Prosper Mérimée wrote the novella just before, in 1845) and subject its marvellous femme fatale heroine, with her castanets, flashing eyes ’n’ thighs, and refreshingly practical attitude to sex — really the purest cartoon male fantasy — to a kind of intersectionality-workshop armchair psychology. But that is inevitably what happens, so the programme book is full of chin-stroking idiocy about whether Carmen was an abused child and has self-esteem issues, and all that bollox. 

And the point is that of course none of this informs what happens on stage, or our understanding of the piece, in the slightest bit. What is fabulous in these old crocks is not the stupid attitudes of the past, though it’s always fun to be reminded of the extraordinary things our ancestors thought, but the genius with which the farrago is brought to life — Bizet’s conjuring into physical existence the dreamed-up universe of this unlikely girl, a sassy variant of Rousseau’s noble savage, freeing her into the world to cause delightful mayhem until the end of time. Sure, it’s just a lurid Orientalist fever dream (and yes, wild southern Spain is plenty exotic enough to fit the paradigm). But that can still yield much of interest.

So, beyond the plainly racist stereotype of the free-lovin’, fatalistic gypsy gal with a death-fixation basically caused by her inept auto-fortune-telling, is the celebration of life and beauty and colour and emotion we call Carmen. A neat job by the A-Team librettists Meilhac and Halévy gives us a terrific variety of atmospheres and scenes from the torpid heat of a dusty town square, to mountain pass, to fiesta-time bullring, that Bizet brings to vivid life — adding his own dreamy landscapes as he turns smoking into the sexiest, most exotic thing you ever dreamed of, and throws in a nocturne of melting romantic magic for the actually not terribly glamorous pursuit of smuggling. It’s probably the most generous score ever written.

Despite best efforts, they can’t destroy absolutely everything

In Covent Garden’s latest production, replacing a pretty stupid staging by Barrie Kosky, director Damiano Michieletto and conductor Antonello Manacorda conspire to nullify just about everything beautiful and celebratory that Bizet made. (It’s true that most stagings of Carmen aren’t great, for one reason and another, even when they don’t set out to do anything obnoxious. But it doesn’t have to be so.) Here, the list of awful things paraded on the stage is too long to bother with, but probably top are the lovable moppets who troop on during scene changes (and wreck that nocturne, as the crowd coos and chuckles to cover the sound of projectile vomiting from the more sensitive). This, ghastly in itself, is also freakishly out of kilter with the tone of Carmen.

I suppose objectively you’d say the rest is a standard, brainless updating of the sort we’ve got used to, the scene being set probably in the Seventies (the last time there was any point smuggling booze and fags, which seems to be the not very high-stakes game of Carmen’s scallywag pals here). Unexplained crowds pour onto the stage at unusual moments — at one point, halfway up that deserted nocturnal mountain — to do operatic things not very well. Fairly innocent episodes, like the bored soldiers flirting with Micaela in the town square, are predictably turned into unpleasant episodes of manhandling. The cigarette factory girls, naturellement, are deglamourized, the magic abolished from the smoking chorus. Men are sexually frustrated losers and voyeurs, and Carmen’s wingers Frasquita and Mercedes portrayed as caricatures of “empowered” female sexuality that certain male directors seem to find persuasive, going through exhausting routines of slink, pout and sashay even in their downtime. Stage action is effectively replaced by a revolve.

The usual drab checklist of the pseudo-engagé director, then. Two people are really exempt from these criticisms, and try to do the show: first and best, Carmen herself, the unbelievably assured 27-year old Bashkir singer Aigul Akhmetshina, with a big beautiful warm voice — though to be frank she doesn’t do a great deal with it: she’s no Leontyne Price just yet — and great stage presence, and her 57-year-old beau Piotr Beczala, bearing up not too badly as Don José. There is zero sexual frisson, alas, nor any insight into the descent of José from stolid, decent squaddie to raving murderous psycho. Instead, he gets a silent, baleful mother creature stalking about, from which we are supposed to infer that he’s emotionally stunted. It’s insulting on many levels, but most of all to the audience’s intelligence. Beczala is also no kind of French singer , but after a rough start he had a fairly lovely go at the “flower song”, and stuck at the job manfully. Sarah Dufresne and Gabriele Kupšyte sounded nice in the ensembles but were largely drowned out by shouty men. Olga Kulchynska was off colour as Micaëla, and was abandoned to her fate by the director; her radiant music, including the duets with José — gorgeously different from Carmen’s show-tunes — were flat, prosaic, uninspired.

Because musically this was nearly as bad as the stage: workmanlike at best, it was under-paced, unatmospheric, unidiomatic — Mr Manacorda displaying zero grasp of light, elegant French style, or of Bizet’s specialities of arching lines, a tenderness of touch, a deftness and transfiguring way with orchestration and sudden harmonic epiphanies that shoot happy drugs into your heart.

Despite best efforts, they can’t destroy absolutely everything, and Bizet’s final scene remains tremendous in an almost theological sense: the most elemental, pared-down, unadorned piece of nuclear-level emotion ever put on a stage. Carmen and José, destroying each other before our eyes, unbearable to watch, impossible not to. But the rest of this thoroughly shameful and depressing evening utterly fails to tell us how they got here — or why we should care.

Carmen, Royal Opera House.

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