Carmen Review – Dance of Death
Carmen; opéra comique in three acts, music composed by Georges Bizet, conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy after Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen, directed by Barrie Kosky, Royal Opera 30th November 2018, reviewed by Leslie Jones
Carmen, as Richard Langham Smith points out, is essentially an opéra comique, a historical genre in which musical numbers were inserted into a spoken libretto (“Carmen’s Rocky Road to Success”, Official Programme). Acting, not just singing, was at a premium therein. In director Barrie Kosky’s production, accordingly, sections of the text, drawn from Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella and from the libretto, including stage directions, are not sung but recited offstage by a recorded narrator.
Millie Taylor notes that this production is informed by theatre history and “contains multiple reference points” (“Playing with Meaning in the Opera House”). The minimalist set, dominated by a massive stairway, is highly effective and remains unchanged throughout the performance. It brings to mind both the ancient Greek theatre and the Hollywood musical.
In Mérimée’s novella, Don José (played on this occasion by Brian Jagde) recalls that Carmen “walked, swaying her hips like a filly from a Cordoba stud farm”. In short, she was hot. In this respect, Carmen constitutes a perfect foil for Micaëla, homely, gauche, and innocent, and beautifully portrayed by soprano Eleonora Buratto, dressed in white.
Svelte and glamorous, in contrast, French mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez, who replaced the indisposed Ksenia Dudnikova, looked perfect in the part of Carmen. She has stage presence and a rich, rhythmical voice. And she can dance. For as conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson remarked in a recent interview, in this production, “can you dance?” is as important a question as “can you sing and act?” (In Tune, Radio 3, 26th November, interviewed by Katie Derham). Indeed, this is what Royal Opera calls an “all-singing all-dancing production”. On the opening night, the dynamic dance troupe threatened to steal the show.
In Act 1, in the Habanera, Carmen warns that love is “un oiseau rebelle” (“a rebellious bird that no one can tame”); and that this “enfant de bohème il n’a jamais connu de loi” (“a gypsy child he has never heard of law”). In due course, in Act III, she dumps the hapless, ever jealous Don José and takes up with the bullfighter Escamillo. For a former factory girl, this move is “clearly more of a leg-up into celebrity than hanging around with a weak-willed soldier in the lower ranks” (Richard Langham Smith). Carmen evidently considers herself a liberated woman and confides that she has “suitors by the dozen”, and a heart “as free as air”. Don José, in contrast, is torn between his passion for Carmen and a code of honour which demands loyalty to regiment and to family, in particular to his ailing mother. He considers Carmen a demon or sorceress into whose clutches he has unwittingly fallen.
This was only Keri-Lynn Wilson’s second appearance at Royal Opera. The first was in a special matinee for children, on the day before. A flutist, pianist and violinist, she attended the Juilliard School in New York. She has an intimidating cv. and was maestro Abbado’s assistant at the Salzburg Festival, while still a student. The best is yet to come…