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Carmen among the Ghouls

Deutsche Oper
01/20/2018 -  & January 24, 27, February 4, 10, May 30*, June 1, 7, 9, 16, 2018
Georges Bizet: Carmen
Clémentine Margaine*/Irene Roberts (Carmen), Nicole Haslett/Meechot Marrero* (Frasquita), Jana Kurucová/Vasilisa Berzhanskaya* (Mercédès), Heidi Stober/Federica Lombardi*/Adriana Ferfezka (Micaëla), Charles Castronovo (Don José), Philipp Jekal/Thomas Lehman* (Moralès), Tobias Kehrer*/Noel Bouley (Zuniga), Markus Brück/Marko Mimica*/Samuel Dale Johnson (Escamillo), Ya-Chung Huang/Paul Kaufmann* (Remendado), Dean Murphy/Jörg Schörner* (Dancaïre)
Kinderchor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Christian Lindhors (Chorus Master), Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Jeremy Bines (Chorus Master), Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Ivan Repusic/Nikolas Maximilian Nägele* (Conductor)
Ole Anders Tandberg (Stage Director), Erland Birkeland (Sets), Maria Geber (Costumes), Ellen Ruge (Lighting), Silke Sense (Choreography), Jörg Königsdorf & Katharina Duda (Dramaturgy)

C. Margaine, C. Castronovo (© Marcus Lieberenz)

Carmen is one of the most perfect operas, with an inspiring setting, marvellous orchestration and vocal parts, and most of all intense drama. It was highly admired by no less than Gustav Mahler who championed the work while Director of the Vienna Court Opera. It is thought of as an indestructible work, a glorious stage success no matter what sauce it is served in: a mezzo or a soprano Carmen, spoken dialogues or sung recitatives, set in its authentic Seville, during the Spanish Civil War, the Mexican Revolution or the circus, etc. A case in point is Otto Preminger’s powerful filmed version of the musical-comedy adaptation of Carmen Jones, set in the segregation-era Southern U.S. However, this Deutsche Oper’s production came close to destroying this indestructible opera.

The action is moved from 1800s Seville, Spain, to somewhere in the 1950s or possibly in the present. In the final act, it is revealed that the border where Carmen’s gang of five operates is the Mexican-Texas border. In the original setting and its source, Prosper Mérimée’s novella, it is the Spain-Gibraltar border where they are smuggling British-made goods into Spain. This production’s gang is much more vicious: they run a bordello, they smuggle both people and goods, and more tragically they murder people and smuggle the organs they extract. They even murder some of those they smuggle for their organs. Carmen’s amorous affairs pale in comparison to this activity. It is highly ironic that the US-Mexican border was chosen when Europe, and Germany in particular, have a huge refugee problem. Maybe it is more comforting when the horror is at someone else’s doorstep.

Escamillo, upon the end of his famous aria, “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre,” butchers the bull and cuts off its testicles as a grotesque love-offering to Carmen. Carmen’s Act III aria “Les tringles des sistres tintaient” is destroyed by serving as a backdrop to the goings on of a bordello/sex shop in lieu of Lillas Pastia’s tavern. The aria’s frenetic music is used to choreograph soldiers having oral sex against the establishment’s wall. At the end of Act III, Zuniga, Don José’s superior, is savaged by Carmen’s gang, and his kidneys are extracted. His hapless corpse is the final tableau of Act III. In the Act IV Card Scene, “Coupons, jouons,” Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès are reading their fortune through the kidneys, eyeballs and other smuggled organs. A disgusting scene that only a severely sick mind can imagine. The stage director’s fascination with sex and violence undermines these elements inherently and abundantly present in Bizet’s opera.

Vocally, the production was blessed with Clémentine Margaine in the title role. The French mezzo is today’s leading Carmen. Myriad productions of the opera have probably rendered her immune to stage directors’ follies. It is admirable that she can sing and “act” with a straight face and unperturbed voice throughout the onstage shenanigans. Least compromised was Carmen’s famous Habanera, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle.” Charles Castronovo was a dramatically convincing Don José. He moves well on stage, has a strong presence as well as a pleasant voice, though his may not be the ideal voice for Don José. While the notes were there, the voice was slightly dry in Don José’s signature aria, “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée.” Unfortunately, the aria’s final note was underwhelming. Federica Lombardi was a touching Micaëla: sweet toned and endowed with a lovely lyric soprano. Her “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” was poised and touching. Prior to the performance, it was announced that baritone Marko Mimica was indisposed but that he would go through with the performance nonetheless. This was needless, as he was in great shape. The Act III quintet, “Nous avons en tête une affaire,” was the highlight of the opera. Vocally, Carmen and her four companions were in great voice, and, for a change, the stage director’s take did not harm the action. The ensemble was brilliantly choreographed with stylized movements by the rotund Jörg Schörner as Dancaïre and Paul Kaufmann as Remendado that introduced an element of comedy. Unfortunately, the conductor chose a tempo to suit the choreography at the expense of the music’s impressive avant-garde syncopation. In contrast to the excellent French diction of Clémentine Margaine and Charles Castronovo, almost all others would have benefited from additional language coaching. In particular, the Dancaïre and Remendado had atrocious diction. They may have been singing in Swabian or Bessarabian, but French it was not!

Vocally, this was an above average Carmen. It is a pity there was such excessive gore. A pinch provokes. An overdose revolts the public and distracts from the onstage action. More seriously, it is hard to sympathize with Carmen, a woman who not only leads the spineless provincial Don José astray, but has him desert the army and become a member of her gang. She is a full-fledged criminal devoid of a conscience. Her death at Don José’s hand is a non-event, juxtaposed to the crimes she has committed. Never would I have imagined Carmen’s final scene to be so undramatic, given the preceding horrors. A first has been dubiously achieved.

Ossama el Naggar



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