Catcalls for the director have become almost routine at the Paris opera houses. That the director and the two protagonists are noisily booed, by contrast, is unusual.
Yet that’s what happened on opening night of the new production of “Carmen” at the Bastille Opera. It ended in howls of protest.
There was a time when the Opera-Comique, where “Carmen” premiered in 1875, could perform the work anytime with singers from its own ensemble. Nowadays, the leads have to be imported: Carmen is Italian; Don Jose and Micaela are Austrians. Only Escamillo is French.
Georges Bizet, the composer, took it for granted that the singers were francophone and could easily handle the spoken dialogue. Although the singers at the Bastille Opera, which is more than twice the size of the intimate Opera-Comique, are discreetly miked, you have to look up to the surtitles to understand what they say.
What really matters, of course, is their singing, not their speaking.
Anna Caterina Antonacci took Paris by storm, nine years ago, as an almost unbearably intense Cassandre in the first complete staging of Hector Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” in France. Since then, her voice seems to have lost its oomph.
Her Carmen is little more than an anemic cipher. When she tries to increase the volume, her voice gets wobbly. Her blond wig and her chic black costume, more cocktail dress than workwear, are no help.
Nikolai Schukoff’s Jose has trouble with his top notes. For the climactic B-flat of the Flower Song he resorts to falsetto. Stunned by the boos at the curtain calls, he apologetically pointed at his throat as if to say: “I’m innocent, here’s the culprit.”
Ludovic Tezier, dressed in a garish white outfit a la Elvis Presley, is a solid Escamillo. The best singing comes from Genia Kuhmeier’s radiant Micaela, who had already been the bright spot in Salzburg’s otherwise misguided “Carmen” last summer.
In an interview with the Opera’s house magazine, director Yves Beaunesne had announced that he would shun Spanish folklore and update the story to the period of the Movida, the 1980s when the country rose from the ashes of the Franco regime.
What we get, therefore, is Micaela doing some laps on a bike. The factory girls and smugglers look like revelers at a street party.
The backstage facilities of the Bastille Opera are among the most sophisticated in the world. So why are we shortchanged with a single, hangar-like set (Damien Caille-Perret)?
For the public spaces in Act I and IV, it works reasonably well. In Act II and III, however, you have to have a vivid imagination to believe that what you’re seeing is a tavern and a secret path in the mountains.
The finale is even less convincing: Before Jose kills Carmen, he forces a wedding dress on her. After her death, they both assume a pieta-like pose. The crowd to whom Jose addresses his final speech -- “You can arrest me!” -- is nowhere to be seen.
Philippe Jordan conducts with his customary elan though not without some eccentric tempi.
“Carmen” is in repertory at the Bastille Opera through Dec.29. Information: http://www.operadeparis.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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