Bieito's Carmen

Do we really need another Carmen video on the market? A quick search on Amazon shows dozens of choices, in blu-ray and on regular DVD. Live performances, filmed performances, old videos, new videos. Carmen is also one of those operas where the video library is unusually complete -- renowned performers of the opera, from Franco Corelli's Don Jose to Grace Bumbry's Carmen, have all been caught on film.

The main reason one would be interested in this particular Carmen (filmed in 2010 at the Barcelona Liceu) is that the director is the Calixto Bieito, who has became famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for his controversial productions. Un Ballo et Maschera had a set where men were sitting on a toilet. Bieito productions are supposed to be edgy, controversial, full of violence, the very definition of "Regie-theatre."

When I actually viewed this Carmen though, I didn't find much that was outrageous, shocking, or controversial. It is an "updated" production, set in the late-1950's, and Carmen and her gang run a car smuggling business. The gypsies and factory girls are a little tarted up. At the beginning of Act Four, there's a lone toreador standing buck naked on the stage. But the basics of the storyline are unchanged. Don Jose is still a soldier, Carmen a free-spirited gypsy, Micaela is the girl from home, Escamillo a swaggering stud. The stage directions do tend to emphasize the violent side of the opera, but the opera is pretty violent, and there's nothing that directly contradicts anything in the libretto. At the same time I'd be hard-pressed to admit any new insights I gained into the opera. At times, I think some of the Bieito favorites (cars onstage, some full-frontal nudity) are as predictable as the Zeffirelli menagerie.

The unit set is a giant bull-ring. In Act 1, the bull-ring set approximates an army barracks, and there's a telephone booth from which Carmen first emerges. In Act 2, the scene isn't in a tavern, but in an abandoned locale where Carmen, Escamillo, and other smugglers meet. There's a beat-up car center stage. In Act 3, the set is filled with smuggled cars, and in Act 4, Carmen and Don Jose have their heated confrontation within a circle of chalk in the bull-ring.

The video is anchored by some strong, compelling performances. The blu-ray format is in some ways the opera singer's worst enemy -- with the high definition, and a director's fondness of close-up, you can see the sweating, straining, the wrinkles, the makeup, the wig lines. The leads of the opera, Beatrice Uria-Monzon (Carmen) and Roberto Alagna (Don Jose) have been singing these roles for many years, and the camera doesn't really flatter them in closeups. A particularly unfortunate moment is when Carmen unbuttons Don Jose's shirt, and you can see, in high definition, all of Roberto Alagna's chest hairs. The key to any great performance though is not to exactly look the part, but to create an illusion and make the audience believe. Uria-Monzon's Carmen is lusty, free-spirited, hyper-sexual, and even her middle-aged appearance is a benefit, as it gives Carmen a careworn look that I see in many "women of a certain profession." Alagna's Don Jose makes a clear transition from uniformed, upstanding soldier to a desperate, murderous vagabond. The Carmen/Jose relationship is portrayed as highly sexual and passionate, even in the later acts when Carmen has tired of Jose.

Vocally, Uria-Monzon's mezzo sounds somewhat over-the-hill. She has the notes, but a certain plumy richness that audiences have come to expect from the role is definitely not there. Alagna on the other hand is going through an Indian summer of sorts with his voice. In the past he's had troubles controlling his pitch, but these problems are not so evident here. As always, his Don Jose is sung with a passion that's hard to beat. It brings sympathy to an otherwise rather creepy character. Even in the opera's violent climax (here, staged with Don Jose slitting Carmen's throat), Alagna can make us feel his pain. "Le fleur que tu m'avais jetee" was sung with feeling, style, and a secure top (something Alagna also doesn't always have).

Erwin Schrott as Escamillo was okay, but I might be the only person who finds the role one of the most tedious in opera, and no amount of pimp-daddy swagger can change that opinion. Schrott has a fine, firm baritone, but my reaction to Escamillo is always the same -- "okay you sang, please go away now." More interesting is Marina Poplavskaya's Micaela. Micaela in this production is presented as someone slightly more worldly than the mousey character she usually is -- she wears rather hip, fashionable clothes and takes picture of the army barracks like a tourist. Poplavskaya has a very beautiful timbre. I don't know much about actual singing technique, but even I can tell that her vocal emission is problematic -- there's no consistency of tone. She can sound ravishingly beautiful one minute, and thin and screechy the next.

Marc Piollet leads a spirited, vigorous reading of the score. The chorus sounds great. Picture quality is excellent. The version used is the standard Guiraud recitatives, even though both Uria-Monzon and Alagna are native French speakers.


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