Royal Opera House 2018-19 Review: Carmen
Barrie Kosky’s ‘Carmen’ Is All Style With No SubstanceBy David Salazar
(Credit: Royal Opera House)
How one experiences Barrie Kosky’s “Carmen,” which is currently being presented at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, really depends on your relationship to the work itself.
Those who have never seen the opera might actually find themselves riveted by Kosky’s conception and execution. Those who hate it might find this a breath of fresh air. Those who know the work more intimately might find themselves feeling a wide range of emotions that could include (but are not limited to) love, hate, boredom, emptiness, fun, confusion, and deep introspection.
I was in the latter camp, which was surprising given that other comments made about the production in the lead-up to my experience noted that it was among the worst productions that had ever been conceived by mankind.
Let’s be clear – this is no revelatory “Carmen” like recent auteur-driven productions like Willy Decker’s “La Traviata.” It doesn’t do enough to deepen the mythos of the opera or its themes (more on that in a bit). But at it’s best, it’s a perfectly enjoyable take on the opera.
A ‘Carmen’ You Don’t Expect
The set’s aesthetics are minimalist in design. A massive (and dangerous-looking) set of stairs dominates the proceedings with a black backdrop. Characters are dressed in black and white, with many featuring white face paint that makes many look like Beetlejuice. Throw in the fact that a lot of the wardrobe actually plays into many of the constructs of what a “Carmen” should look like (the bullfighting ensembles and even the some of the gypsy vestments) and it actually works on some levels. The unease of this visual design (the creepy makeup and perilous set) is undeniably by design as Kosky’s entire premise is to deconstruct “Carmen” of its clichés and present it in a way that people are not expecting.
To that effect, Kosky introduces a number of other narrative elements that further this approach.
On the one hand, he introduces music that was cut out from Bizet’s original score. This music appears at distinct moments. The most controversial moment is the Habanera where a passage that Bizet originally cut from the score (and explicitly asked not to be performed) suddenly takes over the opera’s most iconic number. The music feels completely out of place in the context of the opera; it feels as if it belonged to a different work and its waltzy character is a far cry from the more grounded habanera we know today. But again, it works to create a sense of unease for the viewer that knows the opera intimately; it’s in moments like these that you feel like you are not watching “Carmen,” despite knowing full-well that it is, in fact, part of the opera’s very fabric. A lot of music is also cut, which adds to the jarring effect.
Another major choice that he makes in his deconstruction of the work is a tremendous emphasis on choreography by Otto Pichler of nearly all the music numbers. In some ways, this often feels more like a ballet that happens to feature singing, rather than an opera with ballet elements. Cabaret is a word thrown around a lot as well in reference to this choice. Here, Kosky seems to ask the audience to question their understanding of opera.
While the dance doesn’t necessarily enhance the drama of the opera, the energy brought about by the choreographed numbers represents the most enjoyable aspect of this “Carmen.” If you simply ignore the fact that some of the dance numbers don’t really make much sense as such (the Act two duet for example, which is probably the most remarkably choreographed scene of all), it is perfectly enjoyable and the ballet troupe that appears throughout the opera is of the highest quality. Seeing the children’s chorus bounce up and down, clapping their hands throughout the toreador procession in the fourth act was a true adrenaline rush that I haven’t experienced in any recent live musical performance in quite some time; I couldn’t help but start to clap a little bit.
A Directorial Copout
If that is undeniably the high of the production, we need to talk about the low, which brings us to Kosky’s other narrative conceit – the voiceover. More than Carmen entering with a gorilla suit or suddenly coming back to life at the end, or one of the dancers laughing for an excessive amount of time at the end of an Act, THIS choice undermines Kosky’s execution of his vision and the experience of the opera.
In lieu of the recitativo (which to be fair were not written in Bizet’s lifetime) or the original spoken French dialogue, Kosky employs a voiceover as narrated by Claude de Demo). The voiceover seems like an interesting idea early on when in the middle of the opera’s Prelude, we hear a lengthy bit about what expectations for women are in Spain. It’s a jarring insertion, but asks the audience to consider many of the opera’s often-misogynistic themes.
But then it devolves into a replacement for character interaction and even straight-up babying of the audience; in many instances it overpowers Bizet’s music, suggesting Kosky’s priorities with regards to the work. The voiceover, adapted by Constantinos Carydis, describes settings, describes the characters and their respective feelings, and then narrates the action and dialogue. So when, for example, Michaëla arrives to meet with Don José, we get a narration to tell us Micaëla’s age, her naivete, and explaining the dynamics of their relationship before allowing the duet proper to kick off without any other delay. All of Don José and Carmen’s interactions throughout the first two acts are explained away, robbing the audience of any true interaction between them outside of the musical numbers.
The voiceover’s employment creates a stop and start dynamic with the opera’s unspooling that does not allow for true dramatic immersion. It is the epitome of “telling” instead of “showing,” and you often find yourself disengaged from the visuals onstage to simply listen to the voiceover and its new “insights.” For example, we are told that that the smugglers are lying on the mountainside, despite the fact that we can actually see that very image on stage.
The voiceover’s inclusion is also heavily imbalanced structurally with the first half of the opera seemingly featuring voiceover after every musical number and the second half having but two passages. It is very telling that when the voiceover disappears in the second half of the opera, “Carmen” seems to take dramatic flight and engagement for the viewer with the story is far more intuitive. Kosky probably would point to inherent problems in the opera’s structure, but if this is in fact the case, his choice doesn’t necessarily do much to improve upon it.
In many ways, the use of the voiceover feels like a big cop-out for the director. The alternative would likely be the French dialogues, which are admittedly long-winded and probably would have resulted in some wide-ranging French accents from the cast assembled (or the recitatives used in a lot of other production). But it would have demanded that Kosky actually develop characters and their dynamics, something which he only has to do superficially in his current conception. Having the audience be told who Micaëla or Carmen or José are allows him to sidestep having to come up with visual means of exploring their characters through action and interaction. This narrative device thus turns the drama into drawn-out exposition, with the choreography offering the only excitement in the piece. However, this engaging choreography in over 75 percent of the musical numbers masks the fact that the characters are little more than the very thing he seemed intent on avoiding in the first place – soulless clichés.
Don José, here portrayed by Bryan Hymel, is a running joke for the entirety of the opera’s first half – he stands around with the same emotionless expression, often in shadowy lighting, and every single person in the opera has his or her moment to laugh at him. Michaëla’s is a “naïve girl (per the voiceover, though the interpretation of Ailyn Pérez would suggest otherwise) whose bashfulness toward Don José is shown by having her slide along a staircase in his direction a dozen times (the repetition devolves into silliness). In her big aria, she rolls down a few stairs for some reason, then gets up, then lays down again, then gets up and walks down to the front of the stage.
Carmen is cold and as portrayed by Aigul Akhmetshina, she laughs on occasion, but otherwise reveals nothing deeper about the character and how she views others around her. Frasquita’s defining characteristic is that she lifts up her dress a lot and shakes it around to show off her legs; Mercèdes doesn’t even get that. The male chorus is showcased as a bunch of lurking predators that even get down on all fours as they chase after the women at one point.
Escamillo gets the best deal as he is showcased like a confident bullfighter who has no problem walking up to Carmen and kissing her on the spot. He has pizzazz, charm, and some suave dance moves. All this to say that the characters are little more than one-dimensional caricatures.
The result is that the core of the work, its soul, is missing. When Carmen and Don José finally come into conflict in the final act, it doesn’t hit quite as potently as it does in other iterations of the work. The payoff is certainly there and some of the dramatic moments, such as José stabbing Carmen, really do resonate, but it all feels empty because the entire setup of their relationship was botched in the first half of the opera. We never see Don José or Carmen in love with each other; in fact, they seem completely uninterested in each other during Act one and two outside of what the (surprise, surprise) libretto demands of them. So without true chemistry or connection (again, Don José spends the entire first half staring aimlessly into the audience without bothering to look at anyone else on stage), the sense of loss or passion or anything simply can’t exist for the audience.
Before we move on to the singers, it is worth talking a bit about tone. The black and white backdrop would suggest a darker interpretation, but the reality is that the color palette is a façade; the entire work is full of exuberant energy from start to finish, with the exception of Don José’s portrayal, making it impossible to even feel dramatic tension build; the most stakes or tension that one felt the entire evening was watching the singers move up and down the massive staircase and wondering what might happen if human error had its day and one slipped and fell somehow. The fact that characters go out of their way to laugh throughout the show at nearly every juncture only furthers this sense that the viewer should also be laughing as well. In the end, you come away feeling about the opera as many characters feel about Don José – it’s one big joke.
To talk about a performer’s interpretation of the role usually requires an analysis of his or her characterization of said personage as relates the marriage of the physical and vocal. As suggested earlier, there isn’t really much to dig into in this production because Carmen, Don José, Micaëla, et. al. are mere ciphers. So the only thing left to explore is the vocal approach and execution.
Mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina has an immaculate voice. It is slender, gentle, and soothing on many levels, making her a solid Carmen. She has a ringing top that was on full display throughout the inserted portions of the Habanera, which challenges the singer with a higher tessitura. She managed her voice quite well throughout this version of the piece, especially in moments where she had to sing over a blasting choral ensemble.
There was great flexibility in her singing throughout the Seguidille, but she truly shone throughout Gypsy song that opens Act two. Here she not only managed to tackle all of the piece’s vocal challenges, but did so while dancing incessantly. Her voice never sounded the least bit troubled by the choreography; it was a true virtuoso display.
“En vain pour éviter” was perhaps the lone moment where her Carmen projected any contrasting emotions, the mezzo darkening her delicate timbre and even expressing a sense of dread with some sharp accents in the lower reaches of her voice as she lamented her fate.
As Don José, Bryan Hymel’s tenor showed some rockiness in moments, particularly at the start of the night where he seemed to be warming up. It cannot be ignored that throughout the evening, his ascensions into the upper range were characterized by pushed high notes that varied in terms of their execution; some could ring gloriously while less comfortable ones were quickly abandoned. Despite a consistent lyrical line, he didn’t really manage a vast array of vocal color in his duet with Micaëla; this perceived blandness was exacerbated by his sitting the entire time like a statue. His singing seemed to be stuck in one expressive gear throughout.
“La fleur que tu m’avait jetée” is when Hymel started to come to vocal life, his voice moving from gentle piano sounds to a more desperate forte on “Te revoir, ô te revoir.” The final ascension to the high B flat on “Et j’étais une chose à toi” was lighter in its approach, the high note floated in lieu of a full-voiced approach. The high B flat didn’t quite stabilize, but the musical attempt was effective nonetheless.
Hymel’s best vocal moments came in the second half, particularly in his confrontations with Carmen in both Act three and four. His voice had a grittiness throughout “Tu me dis de la suivre” that only built with the harmonic progression to a higher key. His higher range seemed more comfortable in navigating these passages and more so in the final duet with Carmen where he threw caution to the winds and pushed himself to his vocal limits. The high B flat on “Démon” was cathartic, not only because it was probably the best high note he threw off all night, but because he held it for as long as he did, adding to the dramatic tension of the moment. It was a breaking point for Don José, a moment of pure madness, and the lone suggestion of a deeper characterization that the audience had not experienced all evening.
As Micaëla, Ailyn Pérez displayed an ample voice in both her duet with Don José, and especially in her aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante.” There were flowing legatos and soaring high notes to spare in Pérez’s singing. She brought confidence and poise to her Micaëla in the duet with Don José and even intoned her sense of fear in the aria, even if there was no real context for the character’s emotions within the scenes themselves.
Luca Pisaroni displayed a poised bass-baritone as Escamillo. His “Votre toast” was arguably the highlight of the evening with the baritone dancing on the perilous staircases and even singing while being carried in the air. His voice was a perfect compliment for the middle and lower reaches of the role and he managed to use all of his vocal resources to get through the higher sections littered throughout the opera.
One must also make mention of the chorus which really stole the show. In the opening chorus “Sur la place, chacun passe,” there was an engaging crescendo that is never really performed; it created a sense of discovery. There was a great sense of cohesion throughout “Vôtre toast” and especially in Act four. The children’s chorus was also a blast to watch in its two interventions, particularly the latter ones where the kids jumped up and down to the music; as related earlier, this was one of the most enjoyable moments of the evening.
Music director Julia Jones managed the opera quite well, even if there were a few miscues in some instances, such as the Micaëla-José duet and the Act two quintet. But she otherwise managed to maintain a propulsive reading of the score that was marked by clarity in the orchestral playing. There was incredible balance between the winds and the strings and a general sense of lightness in the score’s reading. To this effect, it had a sensuous feel and in some instances, almost suggested a chamber music atmosphere; this added intimacy to the musical proceedings and also added a great contrast with the weightier parts of the score (Act three and four) when the musical tension ramps up.
Ultimately, this “Carmen” was enjoyable in many instances, especially from the musical perspective and if anything, it’s a different experience that could be useful on occasion to have us muse on the nature of art. Had Kosky made a clearer effort to develop the characters vis-à-vis nuanced interactions and characterizations, perhaps the conception might actually work overall, but the sum of its parts can’t create a truly cohesive and meaningful whole. What you are left with is a production in which a director flexes his stylistic muscles to hide the fact that he really has nothing substantial to say about the opera itself.