Bizet - Carmen

ONP Bastille, Monday December 10 2012

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Yves Beaunesne. Sets: Damien Caille-Perret. Costumes: Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz. Lighting: Joël Hourbeigt. Don José: Khachatur Badalyan. Escamillo: Ludovic Tézier. Le Dancaïre: Edwin Crossley-Mercer. Le Remendado: François Piolino. Zuniga: François Lis. Morales: Alexandre Duhamel. Carmen: Anna Caterina Antonacci. Micaela: Genia Kühmeier. Frasquita: Olivia Doray. Mercedes: Louise Callinan. Lillas Pastia: Philippe Faure. Un Guide: Frédéric Cuif. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Hauts de Seine and Paris Opera Children’s Choruses.

Pourquoi tant de haine ?

It’s easy to see why La Monnaie’s new Traviata got booed. It’s harder to see what it is about Paris’s new (blow-job-free) Carmen that raises people’s hackles. It certainly doesn’t raise many questions, bombard you with ideas or wow you with in-depth characterisations, but it turns out to be a fairly well-managed, conventional show. We’ve had worse in Paris, by far, since Nicolas Joel took over.

The production is transposed to Spain’s movida era and, so the press and friends tell me, includes references to Almodóvar’s films, none of which I’ve seen. The set, throughout, is a kind of hangar with grubby plaster walls, a few bales of unspecified goods and a broken, steel-structured roof. There’s a loading bay at the back, an arcade and an upstairs gallery on the left and, on the right, a metal staircase. The lighting carefully follows the sun or moon as the action progresses. The costumes are reddish khaki uniforms for the soldiers, and for everyone else, a chaotic 70s mix of fun-furs, flares and flowery shirts, gaudy prints and Afghan coats, gypsy headgear, mini dresses and Saturday Night Fever. People say Anna-Caterina Antonacci was unhappy about her blonde wig, but in her series of little black dresses – the slit, black sequinned one in particular- she made a stunningly glamorous, charismatic Carmen, part Marilyn Monroe, part Marlene Dietrich, part Catherine Deneuve. And for once the avoidance of vulgarity in the part was real, not just a hackneyed cliché in the director’s programme notes: this Carmen was cool, pensive and smart.

So, in act one we had the square more or less as usual and unusually convincing schoolkids, naughty but nice. Micaëla, unflatteringly got up in a tight turquoise coat, beret and pigtails, arrived on a bike. For act two, Lillas Pastia and his pals strung up some industrial lighting while acrobats hauled in a couple of flat-bed railway wagons, one loaded with old chairs and sofas, the other providing a stage for drag queens and a stripper to jive around on. Escamillo entered in a white Travolta suit with his red-satin shirt-collar splayed wide over the lapels. In act three there were more bales and a lot more bicycles. And in act four, the women wore flowing mantillas over their modern dress, as they still do for special occasions in Andalusia, while the parade was of tumblers, jugglers, children got up as bullfighters and some very impressive, articulated carnival giants on wheels. A nice change from the usual folk-genre scene. José tried to force Carmen into an old lace wedding dress (I wondered if the director meant us to see it as his mother’s; he was still wearing a black armband) before strangling, not stabbing her.

Among other wicked things, critics claim they were bored. Perhaps I was too far under Antonacci’s spell to see why. Now that she has perfected her extraordinarily “conversational” way of singing, her Carmen is so subtle and natural, dramatically (so many different shades of thoughtful, meaningful smiles, for example!) and vocally that I can find no other words than such unhelpful ones as “gripping,” “fascinating” or “mesmerising” to describe the effect. As it happens, her new partner, a 30-year-old tenor from North Ossetia was, as the man two seats along from me said, "on the same wavelength". In other words, he was exactly the opposite of what you might have expected from a pugnacious-looking young Russian (boxer’s nose, wrestler’s physique) on his first night at the Bastille, if you let your prejudices run riot. He was subtle too, discreet, nuanced, elegant (not over-delicate, as an English tenor might be) and velvet-timbred, but with all the notes and plenty of volume when needed. Together, he and Antonacci could have been conversing in a small room. Perhaps that was why both were booed: I was on row 6, able to join in the conversation if I wanted. From row 624b on the 10th floor of the Bastille, some of the subtlety may have been lost. In other words, this was a wonderfully intimate performance (that would surely work wonders on film) in the wrong house*.

Genia Kühmeier once again (she seems to sing no other roles) made Micaëla (known to my friends as “la couille” – the pillock, I suppose you might say in English) worth listening to and took the loudest applause, and of course Tézier was an excellent if rather fatherly Escamillo. Frasquita and Mercedes were unusually good - good enough to notice it was unusual.

Philippe Jordan has got some stick for spending too much time teasing out beautiful sounds. There was something, it’s true, somehow almost Brucknerian about the sound coming from the pit last night (which is an unexpected thought when you first have it), but I didn’t personally find it slow and the sounds were certainly very carefully crafted, maybe occasionally verging on mannered, often very beautiful. So the stormy reception was something of a puzzle. Certainly, people around me wondered aloud what the booing was about and, as one suggested, it would have made more sense to boo the coughers hacking their way, as usual, through any orchestral passage, however delicate, in the apparent belief that we only come to hear the singers.

*I see André Tubeuf (who didn't much like the production either) says this on his blog L'oeil et l'oreille: “The sad thing is that the Bastille’s mammoth volumes kill such a project [Note from NPW: for a Carmen with a light touch] off in advance, extinguishing or stifling the intimate singing, inflections and discretion of singers chosen deliberately for the purpose and who pursue that purpose to the very end.” 

Maestro wenarto sings the Habanera.

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