REVIEW OF CARMEN, LICEU, APRIL 17, 2015
Ok, I’ll eat crow. I never thought I would say this, but I have just seen a performance of French composer Georges Bizet’s 'Carmen' at the Liceu, with stage direction by Calixto Bieito...and I LOVED it.
Since my first experience of Bieito, when he portrayed Don Giovanni at the Liceu (brilliantly acted and sung by Simon Keenlyside) as a 20th-century drug dealer, and shortly afterwards directed Shakespeare’s noble tragedy 'King Lear' at the Romea theatre, as taking place in a nest of New Jersey-style Mafiosi, I have been thoroughly prejudiced. I have approached anything by him with preconceived distaste, which has often been merited (shades of his cannibalistic doctor in 'Wozzeck').
When the Liceu presented the Bieito production of 'Carmen' in 2010, I was bowled over by both the singing and the acting. The brilliant mezzo-soprano singing of Beatrice Uria-Monzon was combined with a riveting sensual performance, Roberto Alagna gave a touching performance as the desperate, lovelorn Don Jose, and Erwin Schrott was in top form as Escamillo (not to mention his nude cavorting during the second act overture: nudity being a Liceu penchant, though usually female). The rich voice of Marina Poplovskaya milked the small but rewarding role of Micaela. A hard-to-beat cast that won major plaudits and was made into a very well-received DVD. The only thing I didn’t like was Bieito's out-of-era mise-en-scène with its automobiles and telephone booth.
I was wrong.
The return of the production this year, on April 17th, was an inverse experience. Admittedly, the combined bravura of the 2010 group was exceptional, but, sadly, this year's cast, while adequate, was not exciting.
However, confounding all my prejudices, the staging saved the evening. Bieito's 'Carmen' is a less extreme example of his desire to rip expectations to shreds. But, then again, maybe those expectations have shifted somewhat. Set in Franco’s Spain, with all the problems and violence of the post-civil-war society, it suddenly worked perfectly for me.
Beatrice Uria-Monzon once again played Carmen, both victim and torturer, sadist and sufferer. Her performance as an actress was gripping: she has perfected the role to the last detail. Unfortunately, this time round, her singing was less secure. Maybe she was saving her voice as a result of a cold, but it was not as strong as it has been in the past, and, except for periodic bursts of passionate sound, was not memorable. I hope it was a passing weakness, because usually, she (together with Elina Garanca) incarnates the role.
The audience rightly expressed enthusiastic appreciation for soprano Evelin Novak’s Micaela. I wish she had been dressed less like a tart and more like the innocent country girl she is supposed to be, but that was basically the only gripe. Her voice was rich and intense and I expect to hear it again.
The rest of the cast passed muster but no more than that. Tenor Nikolai Schukoff was disappointingly bland as Don Jose, and baritone Massimo Cavalletti, as Escamillo, lacked heft in a role that should impose itself on the stage during a relatively short appearance. The Liceu chorus, as it usually is, was excellent. Its well-rehearsed spontaneity is always impressive.
But it was Bieito’s production that saved the evening. His sparing use of scenery throughout (though plenty of smoke!), effectively stimulated the viewer’s imagination to complete the picture. And his use of one of the distinctive (if controversial) Osborne toros as the backdrop for the gathering of the gypsies and smugglers in Act Two, was all that was needed to give a strong sense of place. Even cleverer was the swift dismantling of the statue at the end of the scene, so that, when the separated parts fell into place, they formed a lightly sketched outline of the exterior of a bullring.
The production was a co-venture with La Fenice of Venice, Regio of Turin and Massimo of Palermo. The presence of no less than three Italian theatres in the co-operating group is a potent reminder of the richness of opera tradition in Italy.
There are four more performances of this production of 'Carmen': April 23rd, 26th and 29th, and May 2nd.
The next major Liceu staged production, Mozart’s 'Cosi Fan Tutte', opens on May 20th and runs for nine performances. A fun opera with delectable music—tickets are now on sale.