Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2024 Review: Carmen

Diane Paulus’ New Production for Glyndebourne – Its First in Two Decades – Is Taut and Brutal

By Benjamin Poore
(Photo: © Richard Hubert Smith/Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2024)

The picnic hampers are packed, dinner jackets dry-cleaned, cufflinks wrangled, and drizzle forecast: the British country house opera season is back. It opens with a new production of Georges Bizet’s box-office stalwart “Carmen” from Glyndebourne Festival Opera, directed by Diane Paulus and conducted by Glyndebourne Music Director Robin Ticciati. 

This latest version, the Festival’s first in 20 years and initially in rep until 17 June, is part of a summer glut of performances of Bizet’s tragedy, which triangulates operetta, melodrama and something darker still: the Royal Opera House recently launched a new production by Damiano Michieletto, and the Edinburgh International Festival also plays host to the Opéra-Comique’s new staging by Andreas Homoki. The second run of performances at Glyndebourne from 1-24 August, and concluding with a visit to the BBC Proms, will star Aigul Akhmetshina

Paulus, a Tony-award winning director whose background is mostly in theater, makes her Glyndebourne debut with a show that is all taut physicality and energetic spectacle. She is supported by Laura Attridge as Associate Director (and whose own productions are making ever more impact elsewhere) and assisted by Adam Torrance. The setting is contemporary but non-specific. Designs by Riccardo Hernández elicited gasps at each curtain up. There are shades, perhaps, of Latin America – barrio or favela suggested in the opening’s run down neighborhood checkpoint, with AK-wielding soldiers hassling the poor kids who come through; one young girl, who will make a symbolic reappearance at the close of the opera, is menaced by the soldiers and leaves behind the flower that will cement Carmen’s relationship with Don José. Her reappearance suggests, perhaps, the structural conditions that create the opera’s heroine and tragedy – poverty, masculinity, and the state. They guard the cigarette factory whose exterior is enclosed by a wire cage, imprisoning and protecting the young women who work there. It’s all stark, unforgiving right angles, with no nary a shred of sentimental Spanish nostalgia.

Act two is a grungy, sleazy rock club, run by Lillas Pastias, which plays host to a brilliant dance sequence and a vaudevillian version of the smugglers’ quintet. Escamillo’s big number is a theatrical tour de force, energized by brilliant chorus direction and blocking, which underlines the narrative twists and turns of the aria, the bullfighter holding the audience in the palm of his hand as he mugs for the crowd, glad-hands, and signs autographs. Only Carmen, standing off to the side, makes a show of being unimpressed. In case things ran the risk of getting too light, Zuniga suffers a grisly end, his throat slit in an act of initiation by Don José – no slapstick kidnapping sequence here. 

The mountain pass could be any dusty, rocky borderland. Paulus is again unsentimental – the smugglers are not a happy-go-lucky band of rogues trying to get a few cartons of cigarettes or cases of whisky past the customs’ officers but people traffickers, with the chorus as their itinerant, disheveled charges, setting up a city of tents around a pylon from which Don José keeps watch. 

It’s a smart, calculated intervention in a production that cleaves tightly to the text (this is no radical recontextualisation of the work à la Barrie Kosky or Dmitri Tcherniakov). The people who pass through this border, and sing along with the smuggler’s hopes for the future and a better life – albeit huddled and cautious – will end up, presumably, in the exact sort of factory contained by the cage in Act one. The freedom espoused by Carmen and her criminal gang takes on a dimension quite different to any nineteenth-century fantasy of life outside bourgeois convention on the open road – instead it is an amoral abyss in which people are treated like things – no different to the wares on sale in the carnival of Act four – that belongs to the unregistered no-places of the undocumented worker, refugee and borderland encampment. 

It is this moral and human vortex that Carmen has made her home and that has presumably hardened her, with Frasquita and Mercédès as her equally tough accomplices and confidantes. Accordingly, Micaëla presents as an International Red Cross aid worker, though her characterisation as an ingenue – all nervous and deferential – feels somewhat at odds, given that presumably someone in her line of work would be a bit more gung-ho about rough-and-tumble with soldiers. 

The violence of Carmen’s world – whether from smugglers or soldiers – erupts in her snarling, snapping stage presence, which turns on a pin from playful and teasing to combative. It is there in the vicious beating administered to Don José at the end of Act one, and the flashes violence from him in Act two, as well as Zuniga’s brutal execution, which suggest something vicious underneath his otherwise more soppy, mummy’s boy exterior, played with gentle pathos. 

Everything comes to a head outside the bullring – bare metal walkways and stands overhead, and ringed by rusted corrugated iron – Escamillo’s (delightfully traditional) tunic and cape may gleam, but the setting does not. The entr’acte is accompanied by a spare, sizzling flamenco dance sequence – choreography by Jasmin Vardimon – fusing violence and sexuality in its raw physicality, dancers breathing percussively and prowling intently; the following chorus scene positively explodes with excitement. As always, Carmen is defiant to the end, but it’s respectable bourgeois morality that kills her, garroted by Don José’s tie (he has come, presumably, straight from his mother’s funeral) in an agonizing death scene. 

There are a few fumbles. The sheer busyness of the scenes means the cast and chorus are sometimes liable to turn and sing upstage, deadening the sonic energies and draining the dramatic ones thereby; in one especially exposed moment Don José seizes a brilliant top note only to turn halfway through it and head stage left, stealing its musical impact; another time he clambers down a ladder, facing upstage, in the middle of his exchange with Escamillo. There are lots of noises from the chorus – whoops, cheers, hisses, grumbles – that provide a nice ad lib percussion part to some scenes, but not everything is welcome – for some inexplicable reason a siren blares out in Act one, covering Bizet’s score. I’m sure its effect could’ve been achieved noiselessly with a change of lighting state on its own. 

Animating the whole is the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Robin Ticciati in a reckless and intuitive account of the score. From the very outset tempi were breakneck and the orchestra irrepressible – the overture is the most virtuosic I have ever heard it – and elsewhere the performance bore the hallmarks of Ticciati’s snappy, gestural accounts of Poulenc at recent festivals. The Act four entr’acte saw intense and crisp string playing and a smoldering oboe solo, that was also folk-music in its characterful inflections. The flute and harp leading us into Act three were sumptuous. Every detail is defined and backlit, as if in the film; gestures – especially dynamic ones – grow and disappear with real intensity and intensely theatrical exaggeration. These speeds are risky – the closing ensemble of Act three meant a few ensemble mismatches between stage and pit – but the payoff was huge. 

Feeding off this fervor are the choristers, both grown-up and young. The combined forces of Glyndebourne Youth Opera and the Trinity Boys Choir (regular fixtures at the Festival) make a special impact of their own, clarion-voiced and remarkably versatile. Paulus’ demands on these young artists is considerable, as they dance and caper about, with complex blocking and a busy stage to negotiate, but they are vivacious and thrilling throughout. The regular Festival chorus also impressed, their sound titanic and imposing, and entries in the complex Act four opening sequence popping off all over. 

Rihab Chaieb takes the title role. Some Carmens show their independence through a kind of careless detachment and ironic distance; hers is manipulative, cunning, and aggressive, tough and mobile around the stage, and turning from sultry to vicious on the head of a pin. She makes short work of Don José when she’s captured, and initially amused by his return in Act two, but won’t be stifled by him later on, and is never cowed. It’s a thrilling performance, with an earthy urgency and command of the stage that meant a hush descended whenever she appeared – the Seguidilla saw her in control even with her hands tied behind her back. The cage around the factory may in fact be more for the soldiers’ protection than hers. 

Vocally, Chaieb is less traditionally sumptuous than other exponents of the role – more salty Manzanilla than syrupy Pedro Ximenez. It is well-matched to the characterization. There is a gravelly quality to her mezzo – an earthy smear, with a whiff of the cigarette smoke – that is compelling and lived-in, and which lends a toughness to her moments of defiance and display, such as the Act three climax and indeed the denouement of the entire opera. She can be more molten, too, when called on, showing off a rich lower register in the Habanera. 

When she tells Don José that it is over – a beautifully-acted sequence that feels utterly grounded and terrifyingly recognizable – there is a gentle roundness in the voice and uttered in regret and pity more than anything else. As Diane Paulus notes in a programme interview, the most dangerous moment for a woman in an abusive relationship is just as she tries to leave – and we feel Carmen’s vulnerability intensely in that moment. 

John Findon replaced an indisposed Dmytro Popov. As the announcement was made, there were a few excited whispers in the audience. Findon, formerly an English National Opera Harewood Artist, made a huge impact when stepping in as Peter Grimes in David Alden’s production last autumn. His Don José is still a work in progress, to be sure, and the opening Act saw some dramatic uncertainty and stiffness as well, perhaps, as a few vocal frays, doubtless down to nerves, sounding a little pinched and tightly wound. 

Things loosened up considerably by Act two’s Flower Song, with this tension in the voice turned to passionate ardor, even if his chemistry with the leading lady hadn’t (understandably, given the context) had time to develop. But after the long interval he found a breathtaking intensity, with a high-octane vibrato and gleaming ring in his confrontations with Escamillo and Carmen at the smugglers’ encampment, feeding off Chaieb’s defiance. In the final scene, the voice still shone, but found some added snarls and rasps, as the animal violence of the scene came out. On his knees, after strangling her – “You can arrest me now” – there was a rare moment of tenderness with a sob in the voice. One to watch. 

Dmitry Cheblykov’s preparation for the role of Escamillo evidently involved getting, as they say, “stacked.” His biceps and pecs are given lavish display in his big Act two number, props supporting a wonderfully over-the-top performance and athletic performance as he bounces around the adoring crowd, chugging booze and telling the story of his fight. Vocally he is equally buff, and strong enough across the entire range to even make the treacherous low A-flat signify well in that aria. The top Fs were effortless, ringing, and resplendent. A vocal coup de théâtre – not wholly original, but who cares – came before the second verse of the song, holding the top F, applying a diminuendo, and breaking into the pianissimo account of the tense crowd without breaking for a breath. The ensuing passage flickered with dark excitement. 

Supporting roles are equally strong. Sofia Fomina makes bright work of Micaëla, who has a quiet strength which opens up in the soaring, long lines of her Act three aria, with the intensity of her sound making her imploring utterly convincing. Elisabeth Boudreault’s Frasquita and Kezia Bienek’s Mercédès were intense, stalking presences throughout. The card trio – one of the finest moments in the opera – was delivered by both with high melodrama, with Boudreault especially athletic and witty in both voice and movement.

Dingle Yandell made a darkly imperious Zuniga, with a rich and classy sound that belongs to that of an officer rather than a thug, and plays the role out accordingly before his grisly demise, which he accepts with quiet finality, in a moment of surprising pathos. Loïc Felix and François Piolino as Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado were light and mischievous – a glimpse of the work’s music-hall playfulness. All the above reprise their roles in August, alongside new principals – director, cast, chorus, and conductor have laid a rock solid foundation for what is sure to be a hit with audiences. 


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