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Don José, The Toreador or The Raging Bull?

Teatro Campoamor
01/24/2019 -  & January 27, 30, February 1, 2*, 2019
Georges Bizet: Carmen
Paolo Battaglia (Zúniga), José Manuel Díaz (Morales), Alejandro Roy*/Antonio Corianò (Don José), David Menéndez*/Germán Olvera (Escamillo), Javier Galán (Le Dancaïre), Albert Casals (Le Remendado), Sofía Esparza (Frasquita), Anna Gomà (Mercédès), Varhudi Abrahamyan*/Roxana Constantinescu (Carmen), María José Moreno/Vanessa Navarro (Micaëla)
Coro de la Opera de Oviedo & Coro Infantil Escuela de Músics Divertimento, Elena Mitrevska (chorus master), Orquesta Oviedo Filarmonía, Sergio Alapont (conductor)
Carlos Wagner (stage director), Rifail Adjarpasic (sets), Patrick Dutertre (costumes), Fabrice Kebour (lighting), Ana García (choreography)

It would seem director Carlos Wagner did not decide in which epoch to place this production of Carmen. Most certainly, it is not Bizet’s or Mérimée’s setting, for cameras and even cellphones are used by the characters. His setting is probably meant to be in Seville as there is the toreador Escamillo, and flamenco is danced. However, in this gloomy production there is no sun, which is hard to encounter in Seville even in deep winter. Don José’s regiment wear hard hats resembling the Kaiser’s army in WWI and behave dishonourably with young Micaëla, fondling her and sexually molesting her, breaking every rule in the Spanish honour code, be it in the nineteenth or the twentieth centuries or even the present day. Certainly one soldier can be a depraved predator, but not all, and especially not while witnessing one another. So, we must assume we are in some unknown land under foreign invasion where they also dance flamenco and practice tauromachy. Or perhaps we are in the near future as predicted by contemporary Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, where Western democracies, under the pressure of unfettered neo-liberal capitalism and ever-rising popular discontent, turn into fascist dictatorships. This may be a valid vision for setting the opera but if so, it was not coherent, given the lax border control in Act 3. More likely the stage director was compelled to portray Don José’s regiment in a depraved light as he thought it fashionable.

Rather than importing an ugly production from Duisburg, Germany, Opera de Oviedo could have opted for a local staging instead, inspired by Asturias’ rich history of rebellion and the miners’ uprising in 1934 – a precursor to the Spanish Civil War. It would certainly have been less disturbing to alter the setting from Seville to Asturias. Taking some liberties with the setting is fine, provided it does not go against the text and the music, and Carlos Wagner’s staging is a long assortment of such incongruities. The regiment’s brutality and the population’s extreme apprehension do not jive with the text of the children’s chorus “Avec la garde montante” in Act 1, where they merrily emulate the soldiers, nor does it work with the text of the soldiers’ chorus “Sur la place, chacun passe,” where they remark about the townsfolk merrily going about their business. One fears Carlos Wagner’s gratuitous innovations are merely for shock value. Another oddity was the merry band of smugglers, together with the townsfolk, gratuitously murdering Zúniga at the Act 2 (which is not in the libretto). Even more controversial was Act 4 where José is a butcher at the arena. The final duet between Don José and Carmen, “C’est toi, c’est moi,” is a simulation of a bullfight between a proud Carmen and a slavish crawling Don José. It is not clear who is the toreador and who is the bull, except that José grotesquely kills Carmen by piercing her with the horns of a bull’s head from among his carcasses. As grotesque as it was, the idea may be interesting for the choreography of a ballet inspired by Carmen, but it doesn’t work in an opera where the sung text contradicts such a gimmick.

Luckily, the singing saved the day! All four leading roles were well sung and acted. Most accomplished, as Carmen, was Varhudi Abrahamyan. She convincingly incarnated the Bohemian temptress without overplaying it. Abrahamyan’s voice is velvety and warm, her high notes secure and her French diction excellent. The Act 1 Habanera is quite crucial, not for its familiar tunefulness, but because it enables the singer to show what sort of Carmen she is. And that she certainly did. Carmen is a woman in a man’s world, and a gypsy in a world where gypsies are despised. She must be resourceful and live by her wits. She values freedom and doesn’t care for such a pathetic weakling as Don José. Vocally and dramatically, Abrahamyan was at her best in Act 3’s “Les tringles des sistres tintaient.” She was less convincing in the same act’s Card Trio, “Jouons, coupons,” possibly due to uninspired staging.

Alejandro Roy, as Don José, may not possess the most appealing timbre, but his amazingly secure high notes are stunning. His French diction is more than acceptable and he has ample stage presence, as demonstrated in Act 3’s “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée.” However, the opera’s final duet was less convincing due the comically inept stage directions. David Menéndez, as Escamillo, has a pleasant timbre and good technique, but his diction was inadequate. His vocally brilliant Act 2 aria, “Votre toast,je peux vous le rendre,” was hampered by his butchering of diphthong: “rendre,” “s’entendre,” “fureur” and “t’attend” became “randre,” “s’entandre,” “furor” and “t’attand.” In contrast, María José Moreno had the perfect voice and temper for Micaëla. Her Act 3 “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” was stirringly emotional. Though this is not the opera’s most melodious tune, she earned the most enthusiastic applause of the evening.

The choreography for the Act 2 quintet, “Nous avons en tête une affaire,” was dull and seemed insufficiently rehearsed. In contrast, the flamenco choreography of “Les tringles des sistres tintaient” was brilliant. It was probably this production’s strongest point. Sofia Esparza’s Frasquita and Anna Gomà’s Mercédès were exemplary. Both had excellent voices and ample charisma. They were also convincing actresses and accomplished dancers. Less so were Javier Galán’s Dancaïre and Albert Casals’s Remendado, who had more than adequate voices but were either poor actors or seriously unrehearsed. The chorus was excellent but could have benefited from a language coach. Sergio Alapont’s conducting was underpowered, failing to draw out either Bizet’s orchestral colouring or panache. Bizet’s Carmen is said to be an indestructible work, but in this production, Carlos Wagner’s staging tested this claim.

Ossama el Naggar



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