Carmen at the Royal Opera House
Tear up the rule book! The Australian opera Director, Barry Kosky, is in town and gives us a new take on Carmen, quite unlike anything you will have seen before.
In an evening that was musically outstanding – including new pieces of music it is unlikely you will ever have heard before – and at times visually stunning, Kosky’s interpretation of Carmen is to bring it back to its Opera Comique/Music Theatre roots. There was no dialogue, but an off stage narrator, Claude De Demo, as the voice of Carmen, was instead the action guide between the scenes, as indeed she was in the Frankfurt premiere of this production in 2016.
In his interpretation of the work, Kosky concentrates on dividing the main operatic textures into a series of montages. This is not necessarily an interpretation that the traditionalists will be pleased with, but the authenticity and excitement of the scenes are heightened as a result. There is only one set throughout the opera, which is a huge stairwell that takes up the whole stage.
Dancing and humour are a huge part of the evening and the choreographer, Otto Pichler, provides us with constant movement and interest in all the events on stage. This is also true for the Designer, Katrin Lea Tag, whose overall designs were outstanding, leaving us with a 20 foot black dress train, both long and wide, for Carmen in the final Act. Stunning.
However, not all the scenes worked as well. Act 3 did not match the excellence of Calixto Bieito’s production at ENO, with the fight scene particularly being somewhat of a non-event.
This was a very high quality musical evening controlled by the Czech Conductor, Jakub Hrusa – described by Gramophone as ‘on the verge of greatness’. He not only had complete control over the orchestra, but spurred the orchestra and wonderful chorus, including the children’s chorus, to great heights, together with great sensitivity. There might have been one or two occasions when he was ultra-sensitive with the artists and indeed somewhat slow in some of the great arias, but this did not detract from the overall sense of purpose of this piece.
Kosky and Harusa put a huge amount of thought into the narration and the music. The spoken monologue was adapted by Kosky from the writings of Meilhac, Halevy and Merimee. The dramatic focus throughout the evening is on Carmen exploring her ever-changing nature throughout the different acts, but the production is also unique in using musical material written by Bizet, but rarely performed. With the Composer dying shortly after the opening performance at the Opera Comique in Paris in 1875, the score was thereafter subject to numerous amendments and there are different views existing as to what version best expresses Bizet’s intent. Kosky’s production is unique in using musical material written by Bizet for the opera, but not included in its premiere, particularly in the provocative ‘Habanera’ in Act 1 and the final part of Act 4.
The excellent singing was led by the Carmen of Anna Goryachova. She is not the strongest vocal Carmen, but she has a gravelly mezzo sound of some substance when required and her overall ambivalent performance is the centrepiece of this opera. Hers was a consummate performance in the round and perfect for this Kosky production.
Her Don Jose was the Italian tenor, Francesco Meli, whose appealing tenor voice has clear levels of light and dark with a ringing top when required. His character lacked real chemistry with either of his female colleagues until his Act 4 scene with Goryachova. This was particularly so when Carmen was released from the static train of her dress and Meli and Goryachova then were free to combine their emotions in the final death scene.
The Micaela was a lovely Russian soprano, Kristina Mkhitaryan, whose pious performance was mixed with a tender pleasurable lyric soprano.
The Escamillo was the Lithuanian bass baritone, Kostas Smoriginas, who struggled occasionally to project fully at his lower register. However, his macho performance was only matched by the hysteria of the chorus. He was clothed in beautiful Spanish Toreador costumes and easily succumbed to the subtle seductive ways of Carmen.
The three Jette Parker Young Artists performing - the Morales of Gyula Nagy, the Frasquita of Jacquelyn Stucker and the Mercedes of Aigul Akhmetshina - all sang and performed well.
This performance needs to be seen to be judged. It is certainly different and thoroughly thought provoking.