Sir Anthony Hopkins is a world-famous actor who also happens to be a gifted composer. Despite his considerable musical skills, he has made it quite clear that he is unqualified to direct an opera.
In Poland, Andrzej Chyra enjoys A-list celebrity status as a one of the country’s foremost film and television actors. He is also probably partial to the polka, but unlike Hopkins, Chyra leapt into the role of regisseur for the Teatr Wielki’s new production of “Carmen” without any previous experience as an opera director. The result was predictably purportless with minimal regard for the insightful text of Ludovic Halévy (Henri Meilhac’s dialogue was shredded) or the specific staging instructions abundant in Bizet’s score.
Forget the Libretto & Score
There were a lot of quirky ideas but they never went anywhere or had dramaturgical consistency. There was an extra-textual young boy wandering around in most scenes as a quasi kiddy deus ex machina with a kite. Dancaïro, Remendado, and the smugglers were constantly swinging polo-mallets as if about to enjoy a chukka or two instead of schlepping contraband. The rabble of waifs popped up much more than usual and apart from looking particularly un-Andalusian with lots of blond hair, the gamins were actually much more dramatically involved than most of the secondary roles. Frasquita and Mercédès are in a lesbian relationship but Frasquita was inexplicably pregnant until Act four when the baby appeared in time to watch the bullfight. Micaëla was an unsympathetic, street-smart alcoholic without a shred of naive country girl timidity or pious comportment. The characterizations of Don José and Carmen were much more interesting but this was more to do with the singers’ inherent acting skills and stage experience than any dubious insights Chyra could offer.
The most jarring aspect of the production was an enormous blue-hued, scaffolding/skeleton designed by Barbara Hanicka. It resembled a giant Meccano-set exterior of a bullring with the profile of the Coliseum. The icy aqua coloring and lighting made many scenes look more like frozen Antarctica than sultry Andalusia. The cigarette factory could have been an underground carpark. There was no changing of the guard – just a lot of languid soldiers lounging around which made Zuniga’s explanation to Micaëla that José would appear at the rotation meaningless. Chez Pastia was an al fresco bordello decorated with two paisley sofas on which the sexually ambiguous regulars could grope each other. The remote mountain pass was again the same metallic skeleton with minimal modifications and the closing bullfight scene the same as Act one but with a large crucifix placed in the center. Perhaps due to Chyra’s familiarity with film, the final confrontation between Don José and Carmen was performed in front of a scrim with two Music Hall follow-spots and projected images of the protagonists behind. It could have been an out of focus domestic violence video or Charlie Chaplin without the laughs.
Reflecting the Muddled Mis-en-Scène
The more or less contemporary costumes by Magdalena Maciejewska reflected the muddled mis-en-scène. The soldiers’ uniforms could have come out of “Star Trek” and bore no resemblance to dragoons in any epoch at all. Shakos and sabers were noticeably absent. The choeur des cigarières looked like pastel-clad floozies out for a boozy evening. Micaëla was more putain than prude and the multiple supplications to God in “Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante” were accompanied by a vodka bottle rather than a crucifix. Video projections by Michał Jankowski ranged from kitsch to clumsy and a recurring gigantic bull image looked like a cartoon copy of Balrog in “Lord of the Rings.”
A Musically Mixed Bag
Musically this was a case of two impressive international stars versus a lot of enthusiastic, but not particularly competent locals. With the notable exception of Don José and Carmen, the French diction was consistently inexorable, particularly from the chorus. It was a prudent decision to cut the dialogue.
The Orkiestra Teatru Wielkiego was led by Keri-Lynn Wilson making her “Carmen” debut. Fiona Maddocks in The Guardian described her as “the tall, blond, pony tail wizard with a baton” but there was more meticulousness than magic in her reading of Bizet’s dangerously over-familiar score. The acoustics of the opera house with the largest stage in Europe are not particularly kind and there was a lack of warmth in the overall orchestral timbre. Violins were not particularly mellifluous and the soaring string postlude after the José/ Micaëla duet was torpid. Flute solos, particularly in the Act three Entr’acte, were astringent rather than seductive. The horn introduction to “Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante” was more hard than honeyed, but the trumpet fanfares were stellar. Wilson tended to favor quick tempi throughout and there was a perceptible reluctance to let the singers engage in any extended fermate, although in the case of Escamillo this was probably wise. The Canadian-born conductor has a precise baton technique and anti-histrionic approach and paid particular attention to what was happening on the stage. She was also adept at keeping the musicians under control. Unfortunately, the leash didn’t extend to the castanet-playing percussionist who made such a racket during “Je vais danser en votre honneur,” the clacking overwhelmed Carmen who was singing with the correctly marked piano and pianissimo.
Other than the uniformity of appalling French already mentioned, the smaller roles were variable. The pregnant Frasquita (Joanna Kędzior) and paramour Mercédès (Anna Bernacka) were certainly animated and made solid contributions in the ensembles, with the former knocking off some solid high C’s in the “La Liberté” finale. “Mêlons! Coupons!” galloped along at such a pace there was barely time for Lillas Pastia to shuffle the cards, but had obvious vigor and punch. Tomasz Madej was a more affable Remendado than usual. In fact, the characterization was almost goofy but there was some impressive high register vocation in the ensembles. As his side-kick in smuggling, Damian Wilma sang an acceptable Dancaïro. Kamil Zdebel was a rather dopey Moralès – dramatically unmemorable and with inconsistent intonation. Krzysztof Bączyk sang a better Zuniga with some pleasing mid-range sonorities, although phrasing could have had more legato.
Two Lost Leads
Much worse problems affected Mariusz Godlewski as Escamillo. Admittedly this is a killer role with a terrifying high tessitura but Godlewski was singularly ill-equipped for its vocal demands. Dramatically, the performance was never better than bland and there was no swaggering testosterone-fueled chutzpah. Vocally the top E flats and F naturals in “Votre toast, je peux vous le render” were either tentative or pushed. The lyricism in “Si tu m’aimes, Carmen” was missing and the top E natural fermata was strained. For some inexplicable reason, Godlewski consistently mispronounced “Tor-ray-a-dor” as “Tor-ee-a-dor”.
Popular local diva Ewa Tracz could have been singing Manon Lescaut rather than Michaëla. Admittedly the voice is solid but it barely moved beyond mezzo-forte. Correct dynamic markings were consistently ignored in favor of a booming over-sing which was entirely unsuited to both character and cantabile. Ominous portents were already evident in the Act one duet with José. Most of the soprano vocal line is marked either piano or pianissimo and only rises to ff at “Ô souvenirs chéris!” The final “souvenirs du pays!” is designated ppp but Tracz could have been belting out “In questa Reggia.” Similarly “Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante” was confidently sung but neither in character nor in keeping with the score. This was a gal whose courage came from the bottle rather than the religious convictions implicit in the text. Vocally the sustained G-natural on “Ah” before the da capo was far too forte and the actual forte B-flat did not return to piano immediately after. The pianissimo “elle est dangereuse” was again sung mezzo-forte and the important crescendo and diminuendo markings were similarly ignored. The overall melodic line was more fragmented than phrased. That said, Tracz has a strong instrument but it needs refining, especially in phrasing and broader dynamic variation.
Two Winning Leads
Leonardo Capalbo’s characterization of the simple soldier whose moral decay leads to murder was a fascinating study in first-rate stage acting. Looking every inch a country lad cruelly victimized by an amoral, selfish seductress, Capalbo’s palpable emotional collapse was engrossing. The confused “Moi, t’aimer?” was utterly convincing as was the brutal realization “Car je suis condamné.” The conflict between loyalty and libido at Lillas Pastia’s was acting of the highest caliber. The American tenor is not just highly gifted dramatically, but has surprisingly strong projection also capable of capturing the lightest nuances of the score. The à capella fortissimo high G on “Dragons d’Alcala!” was flawlessly pitched and “non, jamais femme avant toi” sung with a fine legato and poetic phrasing. “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” was a terrific tour de force with a timbre and squillo reminiscent of Mario de Monaco. The top A-flat on “je m’enivrais” deserved a longer fermata but maestro Wilson seemed keen to get to the bullfight. Capalbo paid scrupulous attention to the dynamic markings and the pianissimo change on “Puis je m’accusais de blasphème” and splendidly graduated diminuendo scale to top B flat on “j’étais une chose à toi!” was very fine singing indeed. The final confrontation with Carmen showed the height of Capalbo’s acting and vocal prowess. “Tu ne m’aimes donc plus?” was unbearably fraught and “souviens-toi du passé” touching in its hopeless desperation. The opera’s final line, rising to a spectacular G sharp on “Ma Carmen adorée!” with crashing fortissimo chords, was almost enough to save the production – but not quite.
Rinat Shaham has starred in over 40 different productions of “Carmen” and is obviously no stranger to the role. Typical of a great artist, she doesn’t just drag out the same characterization time after time but brings to each production, if not performance, different nuances and shadings. She is also far from a stereotypical rose-between-the-teeth, castanet-clacking, Brünnhilde-booming harridan. What makes her interpretations so fascinating is the intelligence and subtlety with which she approaches the complex character. Vocally, Shaham is capable of letting the voice rip when necessary but is unfailingly faithful to the dynamic markings of Bizet’s score and Halévy’s richly poetic text. Unlike many mezzos who harrumph and heave their way through the Habanera, Shaham correctly kept to the predominant piano and pianissimo indications, only rising to forte on the last D natural “a toi.” The toying “Quand je vous aimerai” was purred like a conniving kitten and the low D natural chest notes plummy and pungent. Her taunting “tra la la la’s” were scathingly contemptuous and the low D-sharps on “rien” and “même” had such an authentic French nasal twang it could have been Edith Piaf in the chains. The sexy Seguidilla would have broken the resolve of a celibate Cistercian. “Chanson bohème” was again a model of restraint but with a gutsy top G-sharp fermata on “tourbillon.” Despite the woodpecker-raucous castanets, “Je vais danser en votre honneur” conveyed voluptuousness with some particularly fine legato quaver passages. The closing confrontation with Don José finally ignited the spluttering production and the abject scorn with which Shaham spat out “Non, je ne t’aime plus!” was worthy of Sarah Bernhardt.
Admittedly the distracting projections seriously diminished the dénouement’s musical impact, but it was somehow appropriate that a prime example of a film actor’s misjudged foray onto the operatic stage should have concluded the evening. “Coupe-moi, brûle-moi” indeed.