Festival d’Aix-En-Provence 2017 Review – Carmen: Tcherniakov’s Production Will Change the Way You See Bizet’s Masterpiece

(Credit: Festival d'Aix en Provence)

“Carmen,” Georges Bizet’s Spanish-inspired masterpiece, was performed at the Festival d’arLyriqueue d’Aix-en-Provence’s 2017 season in an unconventional production. Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s has consigned the traditional Sevillan mantillas, toreros, and abrigos de luz to distant memory and, for the hugely popular opera’s return to Aix for the first time in 60 years, has fully reviewed the story to give it an unexpected dark modern twist.

Despite the full rewrite, the musical score was kept in full including passages, which are often left out. The recitatives, which were in fact added after the composer’s death, were replaced by short dialogues as had been the case in Bizet’s day. These dialogues have been reworked to serve the overhauled story line.

What makes this unusual production work however is the masterful vocal interpretation of French mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac, who is fabulous in the title role, and American tenor Michael Fabiano, making a formidable debut as Don José. The Orchestre de Paris, under the baton of Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, gives a crisp yet fiery reading of Bizet’s dazzling melodies.

The traditional story

The opera, which premiered on 3 March 1875, is traditionally set in Seville around the year 1830 and tells the story of the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier who is seduced by the wiles of the fiery gypsy and cigarette factory-girl, Carmen. José abandons his childhood sweetheart Micaela and allows Carmen to escape from custody. She persuades him to join the smugglers, with whom she is associated, which he reluctantly does deserting from his military duties. Carmen’s fickle and freedom-loving nature soon switches her affection to the glamorous toreador Don Escamillo, driving José wild with jealousy. Unable to conquer her back, José stabs her to death in a jealous rage as she comes to admire Escamillo’s victory in the bull-ring.

Nineteenth century writers, for whom travel had become more accessible, had been fascinated by the exoticism of gypsies and southern skies. Many, including Pushkin in his 1824 poem “The Gypsies,” and Victor Hugo, in his 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” had painted portraits of sombrely beautiful heroines, whose fiery blood had been the cause of deceived love, betrayal, and tragic demise. It had also been the case of French writer Prosper Merimée, who, unlike Bizet, had travelled extensively through Spain and on whose novella, published in 1845, the opera is partially based.

Incredibly, Carmen’s opening night was a disaster. The Opéra-Comique, where it was first staged in Paris, had commissioned “a light and cheerful thing to suit the taste of our public and, above all, with a happy ending.” Bizet’s depictions of proletarian life, immorality, and the tragic death of the main character – a woman of easy virtue – on stage were unexpected and, at least in the beginning, proved highly controversial. The orchestra complained about the complex orchestration leading to the opening night’s spectacular failure.

In the coming years however it acquired popularity at home and abroad and has become one of the most popular and frequently performed operas.

Forget all That

Moscow-born theatre and opera director Dmitri Tcherniakov was having none of that. He had never wanted to stage “Carmen” and had found the story, with its overly clichéd characters resembling more props for tourists than living beings, not credible and perhaps dulled by the overexposure.

Such a perception was to be expected of Tcherniakov, whose work first attracted international attention in 2001 with his production of “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh” for the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint-Petersburg, which was brought to the Met during the 2003 Lincoln Center Festival. In the story of the fantasy city, which disappears into the mist when invaders approach, Tcherniakov’s bold vision mixed traditional tsarist iconography with contemporary imagery. In 2006, he staged “Eugene Onegin” for the Bolshoi Theatre, creating a work of eerie, turbulent beauty, which replaced a production that had been used by the company for over 60 years. In 2014, Tcherniakov made his much-anticipated Met debut with “Prince Igor,” in which he shocked purists by reordering scenes, tweaking the plot, and inserting musical numbers from a different score.

In the same the-edge-of-the-cutting-edge approach, his “Carmen” erases the story of the soldier and the factory girl, and all the inns, mountains, and bullfighting antics are completely done with.

Therapy time

As members of the public come into the Grand Théâtre de Provence to take their seats, they are warned over the loudspeaker that “tonight’s performance contains scenes that may seem like actual danger. Please be aware that they are part of the spectacle.” Nothing outrageously gory happens during the show – or perhaps nothing that will shock seasoned “Games of Thrones” viewers – except the fact that the chorus smokes on stage, which in this day in age, is a health hazard, which deserves to be highlighted.

We are taken into the lobby of a clinic or possibly a hotel, complete with a water fountain and surveillance cameras and decorated in an impersonal manner with large leather sofas and cream-coloured square columns. A fashionable young couple walk on stage, she leading the way, he dragging his feet, sunshades hiding his eyes. It turns out they have come to get some therapy. The husband has lost interest in life and his anxious wife has brought him to this center to get the necessary help. A therapist – Pierre Grammont, in a speaking role – has studied the questionnaires they have filled in along with their social media activities, and can offer an innovative approach: the story of “Carmen” will be re-enacted as therapy, which, he assures them, will lead to ground-breaking results. The wife – soprano Elsa Dreisig as Micaëla – is satisfied and leaves. The husband – Michael Fabiano as Don José, who is on stage throughout the production – reluctantly signs the admission forms and hands in his watch and phone.

Off it goes

As he retreats to the corner of one of the sofas in a sulking mood, off goes the famous prelude to Act I, in which the entry of the bullfighters theme from Act IV and the refrain from the Toreador Song in Act II are clearly heard. The Carmen motif, frantically played on clarinet, bassoon, cornet and cellos over tremolo strings, explodes in an abrupt crescendo.

The sombre husband is handed a Don José name tag and the therapy begins in earnest. The chorus takes on magnificently in pure color and exceptional phrasing. The achievement of the Aedes ensemble is two-fold: not only do they sing beautifully, but deliver a highly choreographed performance as well. Dressed in business attire, they pretend to be soldiers and cigarettes vendors as they march miming the traditional children’s chorus. The children – the Maîtrise des Bouches-du-Rhône – who deliver impeccably, are in fact hidden in the orchestra pit. A modern therapeutic approach is clearly underway as large cards featuring yellow smilies are produced to cover the chorus’ faces.

The would-be Don José is still sulking in his corner however, clearly not convinced of the effectiveness of the method…

L’amour est un oiseau rebelle

…until Carmen, La Carmencita, who is called upon, runs in on stage that is. As a brief phrase from the fate motif from the prelude is heard, a tall, slim, dressed in a teal sleeveless jumpsuit, with a cascading mane of dark curls, Stéphanie d’Oustrac comes in to perform a ravishing habanera. At first she puts on a rather comical show with much twisting, turning, and hair tossing, but the insidious rhythm of the warm mezzo-soprano gets Don José’s attention. The fate motif sounds in full as Don José engages in fixing a flower in Carmen’s hair. José pricks his finger and the flower is eventually thrown away. A passionate solo from Don José ensues as Michael Fabiano takes on the vocal space with entrancing intensity.

The wife is back

The wife, elegantly dressed in a pink overcoat, high-heeled strappy sandals, pearl neckless and sporting a prim French twist, has caught a glance of Carmen’s antics and her husband’s response and is unable to stay away. Pretending to bring a letter from Don José’s mother, she bursts back on stage. Elsa Dreisig’s precise soprano joins with Fabiano’s lyrical tenor in a soft duet to a warm clarinet and strings accompaniment.

The atmosphere is shattered by a quarrel and tension escalates as police, in full combat gear, take control of the shocked group. Carmen is handcuffed and uses every sexy trick in the book to free herself. Her enticing seguidilla, based on rhythms and instrumentation associated with flamenco music, provokes José to a frustrated high A sharp shout. As a brief but suitably disconcerting reprise of a fragment from the habanera follows, it becomes clear that the grim police scenario is all part of the therapy.

Votre toast

The treatment continues as the short prelude of Act II, based on a melody sung by Don José later on, plays on. A crowded scene precedes glamorous Don Escamillo’s boisterous entrance, in which the chorus provides prominent backing to the accompaniment of brass and percussion. Who Don Escamillo is and why he is in the clinic is unclear and this is one of Tcherniakov’s rewrite weaknesses.

Escamillo’s entrance aria “Votre toast, je peux vous le render” is somewhat of a let-down as delivered by American baritone Michael Todd Simpson. The high notes of the famous Toreador Song are a little soapy and a strong English accent comes through on several occasions.

It is all rather chaotic as a muted reference to the fate motif played on an English horn leads to José’s “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”. Fabiano’s Don José is becoming more and more entangled in the therapy and the “Flower Song”, a flowing continuous melody that ends pianissimo on a sustained high B-flat that comes almost naturally. The wooing scene in the original story is replaced by a steamy interaction between Carmen and Don José and she is soon lying on her back with her black bra on full display. The therapy is definitely working as Act II ends with a triumphant hymn.

Increasingly erratic

A prelude, where woodwind instruments intertwine in an exquisite manner, opens Act III. As with Don Escamillo’s presence, the card scene, although sung superbly by Virginie Verrez as Mercédès and Gabrielle Philiponet as Frasquita, is difficult to place dramatically.

Micaëla returns and in order to attract the attention of Don José, who is now fully obsessed with Carmen, asks Escamillo in a spoken dialogue to help her make her husband jealous. As she pleads with José to leave with her to go to his mother in a deep-felt piece, preceded and concluded by horn calls, José’s behavior gets increasingly erratic. As he grows more and more aggressive, Escamillo – in a white tuxedo and red bow tie – is invincibly ironic as demonstrated by the snide off-stage singing of the toreador’s refrain.

Claustrophobic finale

The claustrophobic finale is José’s gradual descent into obsession and insanity. As the formerly apathetic man attempts to rape Carmen, the chorus repeats the refrain of the Toreador Song off-stage. The rape is stopped short as he stabs her frenetically on the sound of the fate motif, which is heard fortissimo. In a dramatic twist, Carmen rises to reveal she is not in fact dead as it was all a game, but José fails to hear her. His last words of love and despair are followed by a final long chord as madness closes in on him in oppressing silence.

Love it or hate it

Some have loved this unusual production and others have hated it. The public at the Grand Théâtre de Provence was in raptures and lengthy standing ovations were not in short supply. On the other hand, a prominent musical critic declared on French radio that in order to enjoy the mastery of the artists, one needed to close one’s eyes. One thing is for sure: love it or hate it, you will never be able to see Carmen with the same eyes. You will always think of therapy and perhaps you will need some for yourself. I know I do.

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