Bizet - Carmen

ONP Bastille, Wednesday March 22 2017

Conductor: Bertrand de Billy. Production: Calixto Bieito. Sets: Alfons Flores. Costumes: Mercè Paloma. Lighting: Alberto Rodríguez Vega. Don José: Roberto Alagna. Escamillo: Roberto Tagliavini. Le Dancaïre: Boris Grappe. Le Remendado: François Rougier. Zuniga: François Lis. Carmen: Clémentine Margaine. Micaëla: Aleksandra Kurzak. Frasquita:Vannina Santoni. Mercédès: Antoinette Dennefeld. Moralès: Jean-Luc Ballestra. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine/Paris Opera Children's Choir.

I read that at the start of this run of Carmen Roberto Alagna was announced sick, though he still sang. I'm glad to say (and was glad to announce via Facebook to certain avid fans of his in the US) that on Wednesday night he was on peak form, the very picture of vocal health,  firing on all cylinders. His singing was as full, frank and generous as ever, with the outstanding French diction we're now used to from him. And while moaners may moan his style is "can belto", that's rubbish: his singing was forthright but as nuanced as makes sense when singing José in such a vast space, in which, loud or soft, he made every word audible. "La fleur..." was magnificent.

The only trouble is that when nobody does it better, you may end up feeling a bit sad for the rest: the relatively young cast surrounding Alagna tended to pale in comparison. Clémentine Margaine has a big voice, even a strange one, with a rich and interesting bronze timbre. I couldn't work out if the strangeness came from her not having absolute control over her voice, or if she was attempting dramatic effects too subtle for the Bastille. She was good, but might have been better-advised to take a leaf from Alagna's book and go for a more straightforwardly forthright approach.

There was nothing much wrong with the rest of the cast, but they would have "radiated" better in a more modest theatre. Frasquita and Mercédès were a marvellously-acted pair of happy slappers, keeping in character even during the curtain calls, but on the whole I'd say the youngsters did what they could but were put in the shade not only by Alagna but by the size of the house, which is just too big for Carmen. As a result, it sounded as if Aleksandra Kurzak was forced to force, and Roberto Tagliavini came across as rather stiff and dry. The chorus were sometimes though by no means always indistinct. Perhaps the detailed directing, giving everyone on stage something meaningful to do, made it harder for them to keep an eye on the conductor: there were occasional "décalages", especially in act one. Bertrand de Billy seemed to want his Carmen to be more gently romantic than wildy dramatic, not matching the testosterone-charged menace of the staging.

Bieto's well-travelled production is simple but sophisticated and highly effective. At the singers' level, the stage is wide open. From head-height upwards, there's a wrap-around enclosure with rounded corners rising as high as the eye can see, greyish, sometimes fringed with the dark shadows of trees. At the outset we meet the debonaire, white-suited and -hatted Lillas Pastia, whose presence in every act links them together (there's also a litle girl among the gypsies with much the same function). We see an arena with a flagpole in the middle and a phone booth to the left. The guards are lined up in identical, present-day  light-green uniforms, and a bearded soldier in boots and underpants, cradling his rifle, runs round and round until he drops from exhaustion and is dragged off. The girls wear identical, plain factory dust-coats. The golden lighting is beautifully crisp.

In act two, Pastia and the gang arrive, laughing loudly, in a clapped-out Mercedes (though still sturdy enough for bare-chested soldiers to jump up and down gleefully on the roof), park it and break out a little Christmas tree and the booze. Escamillo wears a plain grey three-piece suit. There's a hint of a blow job behind the car and Zuniga gets his head bloodied with one of the doors. In act three, the curtain rises on one of those giant, bull-shaped cut-out billboards you see on Spanish hills. A double of Escamillo hangs his clothes on the metal supports and, stark naked, practise some moves with an imaginary cape. This was booed loudly, as if after 40-odd years of nakedness on the stage we still aren't ready for it. The smugglers all arrive in more clapped-out Mercedes, nine or ten in all, pushed on silently, headlights blazing, and throw cartons of cigarettes into bags. During the prelude to the last act, the giant bull is pushed spectacularly flat with a bang and dismantled for scrap. Very neatly and cleverly, Pastia runs round with a line-marker and marks a white ring in the sand for the denouement. There is no parade: the chorus looks out into the auditorium. Escamillo does, however, wear a yellow satin bullfighter's outfit with cyclamen stockings. At the end, José slits Carmen's throat.

Bieito is Bieito. Whatever some over-sensitive souls may think of him, he knows his stuff. The acting throughout was, as I already said, detailed and meaningful, while the production remained simple and effective. As far as I remember, this was the best Carmen production I've seen, however upset the noisy old biddies behind were at the absence of fans and mantillas and castanets and donkeys and all the rest. I may well go back and see it with Anita Rachvelishvili and Hymel in June...

Here, Bryan Hymel meets Carmen in a back alley near the Bastille...


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