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Micaëla steps gingerly into the smuggler’s den and gets a stray bullet in the shoulder from Don José, who is fooling around with his rifle. Her blonde perm makes her look like Jean Harlow or a refugee from a Leni Riefenstahl film.
In spite of the blood leeching into her dress, no one bothers to ask how she’s feeling. Instead, they scoff as she tells Don José that his mother is dying. But Micaëla is the first to succumb – that untended wound! – and Don José’s Freudian confusion between girlfriend and mother, first encountered in Act I, gets a second outing. By now we have started to muse on the profound irony of suffering a ludicrous Carmen in the city where it was first performed.
Superbly engineered stagecraft (the girls’ scrap) is offset by comical incompetence (Carmen’s complicated flight). And where is this Carmen set? The tilted rotating bunker that houses a fuggy bordello with scantily clad cigarette girls in suspenders and boys in underpants, like a photo shoot for a mail-order catalogue, could be French colonial.
However, the third act replaces the usual Spanish sierra with Walter Scott gothic, a ruined chapel straight out of Lucia di Lammermoor and an opportunity for Frasquita and Mercédès to perform hanky panky on the altar while Carmen dresses up as the Virgin Mary. (Could it be that Martin Kusej, the producer, is trying to tell us something about a stressful Catholic upbringing in his native Austria?)
The proof that the production team really has lost its compass comes with the blindingly white bare stage and the blizzard in the final act. Parisians, who like to believe that France is protected from rum Regietheater by some artistic Maginot line, were not meant to get this import from Berlin, but Sandrine Anglade’s new staging was ditched at a late stage, apparently because the sets were dangerous. Exit Anglade (noisily) and enter Kusej, or rather Elena Tzavara for the revival.
You can sympathise with Kusej’s desire to say something new about this operatic lollipop, but his psychoanalytical input fatally upstages the title role.
Kusej, of course, does not do local colour. And too many of the principals cannot do Bizet. We do not buy Sylvie Brunet’s Carmen for one minute. The voice, crisp of diction but offhand with ends of phrases, is a fascinating relic from some quaint style buried in the 1950s. And she is no sultry séductrice, rather a hectoring matron in widow’s weeds who could be José’s aunt. You half expect her to ask if he has done his homework rather than beseech him to hand over the castanets.
Nikolai Schukoff (Don José) last appeared in this theatre as Siegfried in Götterdämmerung and the switch to a much more lyrical vein does not, unsurprisingly, come off. He manages well with the French but vocally it is one note good, two notes bad in every phrase. Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ Escamillo is a big-voiced trip through Esperanto land. Only Genia Kühmeier’s gorgeous soprano is world class.
It may be obvious to suggest Marc Minkowski has not quite shaken off his Baroque origins but his Bizet, performed by his Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, not only frequently sounds like Rameau but is trapped in the same fragmentary stop-go phrasing. There is no grand Romantic sweep, just a trivial litany of special effects and eccentric tempi. No wonder the cast spend all their time glancing at him for guidance. And still every entry is chaotic.
They say Carmen is indestructible, but this team does its utmost to muck up a masterpiece.
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