Many opera directors today fall onto a particular idée fixe and refuse to let it go, no matter what dramaturgical or textual incongruities ensue. Vera Nemirova’s fazzoletto-laden “Otello” in Bucharest, Hans Neuenfels’ laboratory rats “Lohengrin” in Bayreuth or Krzysztof Warlikowski’s “Brokeback Mountain” “Eugene Onegin” in Munich immediately spring to mind. Joining the ignominious list is Norwegian theatre director, Ole Anders Tandberg’s new production of “Carmen” for the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
Instead of hankies, whiskers or gay cowboys, Tandberg’s obsession was the smuggling activities of Remendado, Danairo and Co. which given the contemporary setting, involved illicit trade in human organs.
It Isn’t Pretty
Corpses with spewing viscera are scattered over the bull-ring bleachers. As a right of passage, Don José cuts out Zuniga’s kidneys – which is a tad more serious than fisticuffs with a superior officer. Carmen carries a large carving knife for most of the opera looking like Norma missing the sacred mistletoe. Instead of tarot cards, Frasquita and Mercédès attempt to divine the future by prodding globs of glutinous internal organs in the manner of Etruscan haruspices. Following the fad for vivisection, Escamillo cuts off a dead bull’s testicles and gives them to Carmen either as a novel form of malodorous earrings or an artless intimation of his potency. After stabbing Carmen, Don José hacks out her heart and holds it aloft like a peyote-drugged Aztec priest making a ceremonial sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli.
Even when not showing various forms of grizzly viscera, the direction went off-script in multiple directions. Carmen doesn’t appear amidst the cigarette girls but is wandering down the street as if enjoying a morning constitutional. During the seguidilla, several soldiers appear to be copulating with the wall of the arena. The “Écoute, écoute, compagnon” sextet was performed with the brigands brandishing pistols with extended silencers as they did a soft-shoe shuffle straight out of the Radio City Music Hall.
The stage setting by Erlend Birkeland was a single steeply raked elliptical bull-ring bleachers which rotated to show the rear of the arena with such dizzying frequency it seemed more like an endless carnival ride for the kids and chorus. There was no cigarette factory, Lillas Pastia’s Inn was two alfresco tables, the mountain pass was the back of the bullring (with the addition of display cases of human organs) and in the last act, which is finally in the correct locus, there was no procession of picadors, matadors et. al to “Les voici!,” just a ragbag handkerchief-waving, color-coordinated crowd of waifs and aficionados of toro torture.
Costumes by Maria Geber suggested a scarcity of ready couture in Sevilla. Only Escamillo gets a change of attire with different colored sequins for Act four. Frasquita, Mercédès and Carmen wear identical scarlet ruffled gowns throughout. Carmen is supposed to appear for the bullfight in “un costume éclatant” but is still in the same old crimson garb as Act one. Don José also stays in basic military clobber and Micaëla wears the identical drab outfit into the chilly mountains as she did in sweltering Sevilla several months before.
Completing the Norwegian invasion of the Bismarckstrasse, Ellen Ruge’s lighting was notable for sudden black outs which allowed for several processions of ominous adumbral-clad señoras holding globes of light like Sarastro’s acolytes in “Die Zauberflöte.” Presumably, there was an exceptional spate of total solar eclipses over Sevilla in 1820. Paradoxically, the Act three mountain setting which is supposed to be at night, was clear as day.
No Human Interest At All
Given the surfeit of bloodied bodies often literally covering the stage, the dramaturgy shifted from the complex character of Carmen and her ill-omened relationship with Don José to a tiresome depiction of illegal organ trafficking. Whilst there were a lot of human body parts, there was no human interest at all. All characterizations were bland, stereotyped and mono-dimensional. Even such an accomplished Carmen as Clémentine Margaine was dramatically tepid. Under Tandberg’s uninspired direction, this quintessential femme fatale was more Hispanic hausfrau than hormone-charged hussy. Perhaps Tandberg’s intention was to make the character more introspective than the usual man-eating, rose-between-the-teeth, maraca-clacking, hip-gyrating gypsy, but this is certainly not reflected in the music, which was mercifully much less contentious.
Can the Musical Component Save This?
Before losing his kidneys, Tobias Kehrer was an impressive Zuniga. Ya-Chung Huang and Dean Murphy were far too affable as the heartless organ smugglers Remendado and Dancairo, but sang well. Although identical costuming made Frasquita, Mercédès and Carmen look like a kind of Andalusian Andrews Sisters, Nicole Haslett and Jana Kurucová were vocally consistent as Carmen’s partners in crime. Their contribution to the “Chanson Bohème”, especially on the concluding E-natural trills, was impressive. They also deserved special praise for managing to get through the “Mêlons! Coupons!” trio prodding chunks of gory internal organs without guffawing.
American soprano and former Deutsche Opera ensemble member Heidi Stober was underwhelming as Don Jose’s would-be saviour from Carmen’s clutches. Stober’s Micaëla did not elicit the customary sympathy and there was a overly-pronounced vibrato in the voice which was particularly jarring in “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”. The sustained G-natural on “Ah” before the da capo was less than pristine and the forte B-natural following “devant elle” more shrill than stellar. Dynamic markings, especially the frequent changes to piano, were not present.
Markus Brück was carrying a little more avoirdupois than the average celebrity matador and never seemed fully comfortable in his tight fitting glitzy sequined costumes. The high tessitura of “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre” was somewhat strained and not particularly refulgent. The opportunity for lyrical phrasing in “Si tu m’aimes, Carmen” was absent and the top E natural fermata pushed. For some reason, Brück continuously mispronounced “Tor-ray-a-dor” as “Tor-ee-a-dor”. Dramatically the altercation with Don José in Act three lacked frisson and there was an overall sense of detachment which was indeed typical of all the characterizations with the exception of Charles Castronovo’s Don José.
Two Leads At Odds
The American tenor seemed determined to bring a much-needed level of involvement to an otherwise vapid production. Although there was some slightly fuzzy intonation at the piano outset of “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” the aria was sung with passion and precision and the voice opened splendidly on the top A-flat on “je m’enivrais.” Dynamic markings were well-observed, especially the pianissimo change on “Puis je m’accusais de blasphème” and nuanced diminuendo scale to top B flat on “j’étais une chose à toi!” The final confrontation with Carmen was verismo at its best. “Tu ne m’aimes donc plus?” was truly anguished and “souviens-toi du passé” moving in its desperation.
Clémentine Margaine has sung Carmen from the Teatro San Carlo to Sydney and clearly has the role well and truly under her skin. While directors such as Daniele Finzi Pasca and Søren Schuhmacher could draw on the French mezzo’s ample dramatic skills, Tandberg claims to take an obdurate Ibsen-esque view of this patently non-Nordic operatic character. It was as if the fiery oversexed Spanish rebel was merely an extension of the grumpy and inherently dissatisfied Hedda Gabler. Given the absence of credible characterization, it was left to Bizet’s music to convey the true nature of this amoral “enfant de bohème”. In terms of vocal colour, Margaine’s timbre is more full-blooded and less mannered but still manages to leave an individual vocal footprint on the role. From the opening “Quand je vous aimerai?” Margaine displayed a rich, fruity mezzo timbre with a solid top and wonderful chest notes on the low D naturals. There was a certain restraint in the seguidilla but again, wonderful plumy chest notes on “Je n’ai guère le temps d’attendre.” Due to directional restraint, “Je vais danser en votre honneur” was neither erotic nor seductive and it was no wonder Don José wanted to go back to barracks. A native Narbonnaise, Margaine’s diction was exemplary. The contempt with which she spat out “coupe-moi, brûle-moi (a phrase taken from Pushkin)” could only have come from une femme fatale française. Given such linguistic expertise, it was regrettable that the spoken recitatives were reduced to the point of being perfunctory instead of a pivotal part of the drama.
Finding a Middle Road
From a conductor’s point of view, the biggest musical conundrum with “Carmen” is whether it is a pastiche of Spanish flamenco rhythms and melodies superimposed on Italian orchestration or French lyric theatre à l’andalousie. Croatian maestro Ivan Repušić managed to ply a middle course although there was a prevalent French translucency exemplified in passages such as the introduction to the “Chanson bohème.” Although starting the Prélude at a breakneck pace (it is only marked “Allegro giocoso”) tempi quickly settled down and Repušić was able to coax some very fine playing out of the Deutsche Oper Berlin orchestra. Woodwinds were especially strong with feather light flutes in the opening to Act Two, cheekily chirpy in the “Mêlons! Coupons!” trio. The Entr’acte to Act Three was memorable for its plaintive lyricism. Bassoons chuckled along and clarinets were far from inferior. Strings were alternatively dulcet or biting as required with some particularly crisp marcato playing during the fight between Don José and Escamillo and in the syncopated rhythms which follow. Bugle-calling trumpets were immaculate and percussion suitably snappy although the maracas in the Habanera were so loud it was as if Carmen had amplified clackers in her bolso. The orchestra deserved multiple “ole’s” on its own.
Georges Bizet’s biographer Winton Dean believed that like Mozart and Verdi, the Parisian composer was able to express more about the real nature of his protagonists through his complex, intricate orchestration than what may appear on stage. Given the total absence of insight in Ole Anders Tandberg’s regie, this formidable skill was the only saving grace in a performance which was closer to “The Butcher of Seville” than anything to do with Bizet.