Bizet - Carmen

Châtelet, Paris, Thursday May 17 2007

Conductor: Marc Minkowski. Production from the Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin: Martin Kusej, restaged by Elena Tzavara. Carmen: Sylvie Brunet. Don José: Nikolai Schukoff. Escamillo: Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Micaëla: Genia Kühmeier. Le Dancaïre: Alain Gabriel. Le Remendado: François Piolino. Zuniga: François Lis. Moralès: Boris Grappe. Frasquita: Gaële Le Roi. Mercédès: Nora Sourouzian. Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble. Chorus of the Musiciens du Louvre. Sotto Voce and Maîtrise de Paris children's choruses.
Bizet's Don José

Quite often these days directors are criticised for taking "stage business" to mean busy staging, afraid that audiences with a supposedly short, TV-influenced attention span will switch off if nothing much happens during an aria. Martin Kusej's Carmen must be one of the fidgiest productions I've ever seen.

The thing even managed to open with two "ideas". First, a red scarf fell from the flies (to a sigh of "very symbolic" in German from someone behind me). This scarf would have various uses during the production, and was immediately set to work in idea number 2 as a blindfold for José as he was executed by a firing squad during the latter, more "tragic" part of the overture (later it would be the rope José ties Carmen's hands with and, in act 4, fall from the sky again for them to play a tug-of-war with). This, plus the particularly violent, loutish behaviour of the particularly shabby soldiers (furtively scratching their fleas and crabs) and the rapid appearance of men and women in underwear signalled that this production would emphasise sex, violence and death. From then on it was fairly easy to predict that the cigarette girls would behave like whores, that people would writhe around on the stage as unconvincingly as ever in these cases, that the atmosphere at Lillas Pastia's joint would be menacing and that everyone would be not just pleasantly squiffy but paralytically drunk... If Zuniga (stabbed by José), Micaëla (stray bullet from José"s rifle), Escamillo (gored), Carmen (stabbed) and José (executed) all end up dead, it is only mildly surprising - but somehow, too, only mildly of interest.

The set is framed by a box structure in pale shuttered concrete. In act 1, centre stage, there is a concrete bunker set at an angle into the floor, providing a steeply sloping surface for the fake execution, sexual shenanigans, Carmen's (lumbering) escape. The bunker turns to reveal its open rear, where we see that the cigarette factory is really a brothel and in fact inexplicably upside-down, as if it had fallen roof-down into the ground. The girls have, as José says, made themselves comfortable in the heat by stripping down to their undies and are joined by a number of male extras in Calvin Kleins. The busy crowd movements are in fact well managed, especially the girls' fight scene, but the piling on of action is distracting and soon tiresome, and in reality at the detailed level, the acting isn't quite convincing enough: what we see stubbornly remains chorus-members and extras acting out sex, violence, panic, etc.

At the end of the act, shabby soldiers reappear, this time in ghostly white uniforms with their faces daubed with white paint: death.

By this time we have, of course, met both Don José and Carmen. The one thing that really worked well was the characterisation of José as a Wozzeck-style victim, bullied, beaten, kicked, his hair pulled, and mocked by those around him - while also playing up the Oedipal side. And if it really worked well, it was thanks to Nikolai Schukoff. He was a very atypical Siegfried in Bob Wilson's Paris Götterdämmerung last year. but somehow managed to bring it off. Now, there's surely something special about anyone who manages to project presence, magnetism and youthful charm in the straitjacket of a Bob Wilson production, as Schukoff did. His uneven, multi-coloured voice, sometimes (not always) sounding strained at the top and smoky in the middle, was as unorthodox and risky here as there. But his portrayal of a naive, confused, downtrodden youth was excellent, his acting was committed and convincing, and, to me, compensated wholly for any vocal shortcomings to, finally, make the evening his, not hers.

The problem being that Sylvie Brunet unfortunately has neither the physique nor the temperament of a Carmen, at any rate a Carmen faced with such an engaging young José. For all her efforts, she is nevertheless shorter, plumper and a good deal older; a matronly figure in Iberian widow's weeds with only a matron's degree of physical fitness when dancing or, in act 1, fleeing. Her voice is not the problem: caramelly-sounding, sometimes chesty, sometimes billowy, a touch shrill at the top, an old-fashioned sound... but the right tessitura and (like Schukoff) mostly good diction. No, the trouble is that in act 2, when she danced for José under a plunging spotlight, the impression I got was that a very cute though not very bright kid (one of my young Turkish friends, for example) was supposed to have fallen under the spell of my Portuguese concierge.

Back to the production...

I don't remember a concrete water tower near Seville's city walls, but then I wasn't looking out for one. Anyway, that's where Pastia's grim bar is located - and the tower must be leaky because there's a pool of water under it that the drunken mob splash around in furiously (and noisily) during "Les tringles des sistres tintaient". José fatally wounds Zuniga in the final scuffle. So far, so predictable, in the sense that acts 1 and 2 had brought us the logical working-through of the general sex/violence/death concept, to no greatly interesting effect.

But then, in act 3, more ideas pour in. It is quite cleverly set in a ruined church, reminiscent of a Caspar David Friedrich painting, with massive stonework, tall, gaping windows and a crooked altar. But when Carmen sings "La mort, toujours la mort" it revolves to reveal a tableau vivant of our former undy-clad frolickers now daubed with white: death; and José brandishing a knife. And as it continues to revolve, the scene inside it changes to a congregation (in 40s dress) holding tapers, while the smugglers, Frasquita and Mercédès fornicate on the altar and Carmen, quite inexplicably, drapes herself in a blue silk shawl to imitate the Virgin Mary in the centre. This sudden irruption of religion is puzzling. It's in this act, of course, that Micaëla gets a bullet in the shoulder before giving the bad news to José about his mother. She expires and he leaves alone.

The fidgety direction reaches its paroxysm in act 4, for which the stage is bare and brightly lit. The act opens in a sandstorm (with wind machine) and the chorus run around frantically in all directions, bumping into one another - while singing - until, comically, they fall to the ground for the duet between Carmen and Escamillo, for which the stage is suddenly dark and backlit (the bullfighters' costumes, incidentally, are the only direct reference to Spain in the production design). When the chorus return, to witness the final confrontation between Carmen and José (the tug-of-war with the red scarf) they are dressed in white, and smear their faces with white paint: death; and the bullfighters carry the gored body of Escamillo across the stage. At the end, José is executed again, blindfolded with red scarf.

But in that final confrontation, Sylvie Brunet is at her most convincing and Schukoff is simply stunning, really making it, as I said above, his opera, not hers.

Back to the music...

Genia Kühmeier had no doubt the most appropriate and impressive voice of the evening: bright, clear, crystalline, perfectly in tune and perfectly controlled, but, perhaps owing to her ice-blond wig, frumpy frock and "sensible" white shoes, unfortunately not touching. Teddy Tahu-Rhodes had an imposing figure but, to my surprise after what I'd read about him on the web, by no means an imposing voice: too light for the part, bleating and sometimes off the note. The rest of the cast were decent, though I think I've heard better Frasquitas and Mercédèses, and certainly with better diction: these two were incomprehensible (bringing to mind what the FT critic wrote about Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ Escamillo: a "trip through Esperanto land").

Obviously it was interesting to have Minkowksi and his usual band in the pit. The result was something of a mixed bag. He threw himself into the local colour with gusto and zippy tempi, and the bucolic prelude to act 3 actually drew long applause. The sound was rich and ripe, bouncy and crunchy. But there was some quite unexpectedly dodgy tuning from the woodwind and brass, and Minkowski's tendency to bully the music along rather brutally was in evidence. Also, though the sometimes surprising tempi were, say, interesting, the way he sometimes pulled the music around bordered on mannerism.

Unsurprisingly for such a popular work, the audience was chatty and oddly-behaved: many people left at the end of act 1 even though Minkowski remained in the pit and the house-lights were only half up, and scuttled back noisily to their seats when act 2 struck up. And when the mobile phone of a former minister of culture two seats away from me played a pretty Chopin waltz, I distinctly heard him exclaim "merde" under his breath.

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