Sunday, October 3, 2010

Carmen in Barcelona

Carmen, Gran Teatre del Liceu - Barcelona, September 30 2010

Director ..... Calixto Bieito
Conductor ..... Marc Piollet

Carmen ..... Jossie Pérez
Don José ..... Brandon Jovanovich
Micaela ..... Maria Bayo
Escamillo ..... Jean-François Lapointe
Frasquita ..... Eliana Bayón
Mercédès ..... Itxaro Mentxaka
Le Dancaire ..... Marc Canturri
Le Remendado ..... Francisco Vas
Moralès ..... Alex Sanmarti
Zuñiga ..... Josep Ribot

Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu

And so I saw that famous Carmen directed by Calixto Bieito that was premiered ~10 years ago and since has been retouched in its several revivals on smaller European stages, including the one in Maastricht where the PR staff posted a very good trailer on YT.

I can only imagine the resistance this production had met at the time when it was created.  From  today's perspective though this show is not controversial but is rather a testimony of a refined theatrical talent of Calixto el Grande. The show is not as complex or provocative as his Aida in Basle, or his Abduction from the Seraglio in Berlin, but it is definitely the best Carmen on the market today.

For once, there is no tobacco factory in Seville and women slapping their thighs to impress the aroused military. Bieito manages to shape the story in such a way that it goes beyond love and passion, even if his Carmen remains portrayed as a strong, independent woman like in many other productions.

The story is situated in South of Spain, close to its border with Morocco. The first Act is placed in the military camp where the discipline is strong. Women and children  who live in the area are poor and depend on the soldiers who in turn help them by giving them food and by keeping the area safe, clean from smugglers, criminals... Once the soldiers have time for themselves (a bell rings!), they are unleashed and behave the way you'd expect the frustrated soldiers to behave in the presence of women.

A dramatic awkwardness of EVERY production of Carmen comes at the key point when Don José is ordered to tie Carmen up, when he feels fatally attracted to her.  That always falls flat, except that in this production it works impeccably: Carmen is aware of her attractiveness and the moment Don José ties her hands she rubs them against his sex (both are facing Zuniga so he cannot see what's happening between the two). Don Jose enjoys the situation for not more than a few seconds and jumps away, but the moment is cleanly defined and discernible from the rest of the action. You may complain that I'm paying too much attention to details, but it's all about the details...

Carmen is a strong woman who wants to go out of poverty and she joins the gang of smugglers lead by Escamillo. Since we are close to the border with Morocco, you can see all kinds of goods they are trafficking (huge boxes of cigarettes, washing machines, plasma TV...) but most importantly they deal with expensive cars. 

One other moment that is usually badly done in other productions of Carmen is when Don José is torn between his love for Carmen and his duty in the military. He does not want to be a deserter as it would demolish his sense of dusty and his pride. For Bieito there is no doubt and the situation becomes perfectly plausible: Carmen takes off her underwear in a sexy way when the calls to go back to barracks start to be heard, and... and Don José stays with her and the gang.

I will not recount the story of Carmen now. I'd only point out three elements that Bieito emphasizes in his show that target issues broader than the fatal love between Carmen and Don José:

(1)  As the action takes place in the south where many people from Africa are trying to cross the border illegally, Gypsies can be viewed as immigrants (illegal or legal). The area around border is nowadays full of desperate people confined in refugee/transit centers waiting to be deported back to the countries they came from. That interpretation was advanced in the press and apparently during the press conferences preceding the premiere.
Even though the drama takes place in Spain, it is perfectly applicable to any Western country.*

(2)  Gypsies can naturally be viewed as Roma people and the story gets a bitter taste as Roma have recently been massively expelled from France to Romania. That's a hot issue in Europe right now... In that sens the story of Carmen and Don José becomes both more actual and gains in its political incorrectness.

(3) Immigrants/Gypsies are coming, they live and work in the host countries, bringing their culture and little by little change the "national identity" of the country they immigrated in. That of course induces nationalism that Bieito denounces very often in his shows [particularly in his Aida in Basle!]
The third act of Carmen, for example, opens with a huge metallic Osborne bull [a symbol of Spain], with a lone soldier who takes all of his cloths off, and starts dancing by mimicking the virile gestures of toreadors. When someone comes on the stage and breaks the silence, he gets scared, quickly picks up his cloths and runs away. I let you conclude how Bieito's challenging the myths of bravery of both military and toreadors.
Calixto goes a step beyond when Gypsies tear down the Osborne bull as it has no symbolic meaningfor them and they see it more reasonable to take the rusty tin structure and sell the pieces as old iron.** There is also an episode with the Spanish flag.

All of the above is made in a masterfully shaped smooth theatrical action, and mostly as collateral ideas that by no mean derail from the main operatic drama. It is not controversial but stimulating: you cannot leave the theater without thinking about one of the above issues, relevant to our life today.

There are 14 shows in this run served by three different casts. I am glad to have come to see the second cast as both Jossie Perez or Brandon Jovanovich sing very seldom in Europe, and as I've read many good things about them, I was glad to listen to them singing live.
Jossie was a bit tentative in Habanera, but then relaxed and sang better and better. Liceu auditorium is large and in spite of its good acoustics you have to push your voice to fill the house. That's maybe the reason why she sounded tired in the last part of the show. She's maybe not in the same league with Anna Caterina Antonacci, or even Elina Garanca and Stéphanie d'Oustrac, but she is nevertheless a very good Carmen.
Brandon is excellent in this role and has nothing to envy to any of the top Don José's of our time. I was particularly impressed by the fact that he kept the same level of intensity throughout the show and finished the performance strongly. His French is perfectly comprehensible, even though he's not completely focused during the dialogs. In the end, I was among those who yelled "Bravo!"  to his performance. I saw later in his sched that he'll be Siegmund/Walküre in the SF Ring. I hope this won't make scars on his voice (in terms of vocal flexibility) as he is not a helden-tenor.
The singing surprise of the night was, however, Maria Bayo. While her Micaëla maybe lacks freshness of Anne-Catherine Gillet, she is 100% invested in the role, sings it with great confidence and with an impressively high volume. Her tessitura is higher than that of Anna Netrebko but in terms of volume she's up there with Trebs.

Jean-François Lapointe is a very good singer and excels when with his musicality when employing the upper register of his voice. In the lower register, however, he was often drowned by the orchestra, despite a very attentive maestro Piollet. I guess Liceu is too big for his gravi.
The orchestra was very good too, with a brass section a bit too heavy at the beginning but  Marc Piollet tamed them fast enough and everything went on very well.

The secondary roles and the chorus were very good too, so that in spite of my fatigue I spent a very good evening at Liceu.

Notice that on October 13 @ 20:00 (cet), this same production of Carmen will be live broadcast from Barcelona to hundreds of cinemas worldwide. The cast for that show will be: Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Roberto Alagna, Marina Poplavskaya, Erwin Schrott... 
For those of you who're in Paris, you can see it at the Balzac cinema - Paris 8é.

Here are several CC pics and more:

Jossie Perez -Carmen

Brandon Jovanovich - Don José

Jean-François Lapointe - Escamillo

Maria Bayo - left

Maestro Marc Piollet

Singers and a LARGE & excellent chorus

Front of Liceu: it is a beautiful and very well maintained theater -- it is rather expensive but very enjoyable

Fun part is that getting out of the theater takes you straight to La Rambla (pedestrian area in the very center of Barcelona)

Intermission: you may either choose to mingle in this fancy decorated hall

or opt for a large modern decorated hall/bar situated underneath the auditorium [where they sell a lousy wine ;) - Mei will kill me for this remark ;) ]
or you can go through a very nice shop with CDs DVDs and souvenirs, and enter a large cafeteria decorated with sketches like this,

or you can go out to La Rambla and enjoy the wonderfully warm weather.


* In the US the Gypsies would be the Mexican immigrants. Indeed a new production of Carmen in Bordeaux, also premiered last week, plays precisely along that line: the action is placed on the border between the US and Mexico [see here for a short video
** There is an even more subtle interpretation that spurs a debate of the Spanish/Catalan relations, which is beyond the scope of this modest review ;)

*** There must be a bunch of typos. Will clean them (at least partly) tomorrow. Sorry for that...


  1. Jossie Perez will be here in Arizona next month for Arizona Opera's Carmen. Thanks for reviewing. Wish I could see one of Bieito's productions. :)

  2. I'm glad you enjoy the show... Bieito offers us a Carmen without all those spanish stereotypes and I appreciate that...

    And most importantly the show works...

    PS: Don't be afraid I won't kill you, they really sell a lousy wine... xD

  3. This one will be in the movies. Maybe the theaters that normally broadcast the shows from The Met will broadcast also this show?

    You can also find his Wozzeck on DVD (which IMHO is the best Wozzeck in business - together with those by Marthaler and Kriegenburg).

    There is also Don Giovanni on DVD [dir Bieito] but there a few roles so badly sung that they spoil the fun part.

  4. @Mei: Aaah now I feel better.
    Yes yes, every time someone mounts Carmen it's the same cliché that is miles away from what you can find in Spain.

    Aida is a much tougher in terms of the social mirror that Bieito is trying to make by his show. Hopefully I'll get 1 hour to put a string of sentences on Aida too.

  5. I can't barely wait until Saturday when I will attend Carmen in Barcelona.

  6. Thank you for your recommendations. Unfortunately, the travesty that was the C Loy production of Entführing in HD (I think a travesty only as far as this particular production being quite unsuitable for an HD broadcast not to mention the serious technical problems apparently all the theaters experienced with the transmission) has killed any interest any movie theater in Tucson, AZ would have in broadcasting from Teatro Liceu. As much as I would love to see a Bieito production, I am not willing to drive two hours north on a weekday. I'll wait for the DVD. :)

  7. I do not agree with most of you. I have attended the premiere, so with Uría-Monzón, Alagna, Bayo (substituting Poplavskaya) and Schrott. I didn't like the production. To some of you talking about stereotypes, here you can find all of them. Not the so called spanish ones, but the Bieito ones, just added to feed the media and focuss on him instead that in the music and the artists. Distracting and noisy the guy running around the stage on the first act, completely avoidable the naked "torero", a mess of cars (one of them hitting something when leaving the stage)... I missed what someones call spanish stereotypes, nothing else than what it was about in the opera. I was lucky enough to attend the Zefirelli's production in Wien with Anna and the stage and costumes were absolutely beautiful.

  8. BRAVO tutti!!! Thanks OC for the report.

  9. @Carlos: This Carmen sits on the opposite side of the spectrum with respect to that by Zeffirelli. Since I saw several shows directed by Calixto, I can tell you that this one is the least controversial. In fact there is nothing really controversial in there (if you were not disturbed by the "toreador" at the beginning of Act-3.
    If you don't like this kind of theater, move on ;) Today, the productions of Carmen are mostly "traditional." A different touch to the story may open a whole different face to Carmen -- which is what Bieito did.

    @ Hi Andrew! DVD with YOUR Don José from Opéra Comique is now available on Amazon. That was superbly sung by all of you!

  10. I love, love, love the music of Carmen, but I hate the story. I don't think there is any way to make it palatable; all these various productions are mere window dressing. Au fond, a man thinks he owns a woman, and she thinks otherwise. She also believes in fate (or destiny), and thus does not actively try to save her life--probably knowing that any efforts would be fruitless, as other women have discovered when dealing with stalkers.

    It's a story that speaks directly to our times regardless of naked toreadors, smugglers, automobiles, foreign workers who aren't citizens, etc. In fact, those elements tend to obscure the intense man-woman conflict that is the heart of this story.

    If I can find a movie theater 100 miles or so from my house, I'll try to see it anyway. The music is that good.


  11. And now, dear Cake, what about Aida in Basel?

  12. @Lily The story is the same but the show is different wrt to the usual Carmen. Don't expect TOO much! I wouldn't like to see you disappointed ;)

    @La Cieca dear, it's really been busy here today and that show [Aida] is LOADED. Plus it's tricky to talk about it and avoid talking about politics. While Carmen is not disturbing at all - it's just positively different - Aida IS disturbing, but ultimately one of the most exhilarating operatic experiences I've had this year... Cheers

  13. Fantastic show I enjoyed it enormously.Bieito knows how to make opera close to our society.You don`t need to wear jewels or know the date of birth of Giuditta Pasta anymore.Just enjoy music and dramma.

  14. What an intelligent, analytical review. Such a change to read someone who thinks about what they see instead of simply screaming. Carmen's an amazing archetype which resonates in all cultures. There's even a Chinese version which is pointedly political, and deals with the social disorder of China in the early 50's. The star is a nightclub artiste but her routines are based on opera. She gives pianist as score "You can't sing this!" he sneers, but she goes on and does La Donna e mobile. Female empowerment ! She sings the Habanera in Chinese too.

  15. Hi DT! Thanks for that. Habanera in Chinese - would love to see that ;)

  16. Why would we like to see today's bleakness in an opera? In which way this spanish prostitute is closer to me because she's living about in the seventies? This is terribly cheap, ordinary vulgarity, everything we hate in today's everyday. That was covering the problematic issue of the very existence of Calixto Bieito in the world of Opera.
    Now the singing: being french i should love Alagna. Well i Don't. Case closed. I prefer a german or a mexican gent... Ms Uria Monzon's french is not very easily carried by her rounded honeyed mature voice. Shame. Erwan Schrott is good but rather unexpressive. literraly the singing reflects the staging. Flat, depressing, better to be forgotten.