Saturday, November 21, 2009

Some thoughts on Carmen

Carmen is an opera I know well. I have been in it a couple times (including as a child) and I have played it in the pit a couple times and seen different productions lots of times. I used to listen to the old Rise Stevens recording over and over again. Anyway, I was thinking about this production from last night on Ovation TV - done by the Frankfurt Opera with Daniel Baremboim conducting. The production was very odd in places - but in other ways I think it was trying to fix some basic dramatic errors in the libretto. It didn't really succeed - but it is something to think about.
1. The Lyric production from a couple years ago began the opera with Jose's execution - but when the scene began it was over and the marketplace scene started traditionally. Last night they did the execution thing again - ok - fine. But they left the dead and very bloody Jose laying on the set through the entire 1st scene and when an obviously elderly Michaela enters (long gray white hair, with sunglasses, acting blind) they (Morales and the chorus of soldiers) eventually show her the body and she screams. Ok - interesting. It sort of worked, I guess, one wonders how a blind Michaela could recognize a dead and bloody Jose - considering that it probably occurred right after the events in Act IV. The other problem was that this production killed off Michaela in Act III. Dancairo finds her and shoots her and she dies in Jose's arms. At least that is what we are led to believe. Anyway, nice effort - but it didn't really work.
2. The end of Act I never works. We are supposed to believe that Jose unties Carmen, she pushes him and then runs off - and the soldiers don't go after her? She is surrounded by soldiers and usually one push and all of the soldiers tumble like toys. And then, she takes refuge at Lilas Pastia where Lt. Zuniga is a regular patron?!?!? The only time I have ever seen this ending work is in the Domingo film version when they are on horses and she rides off with soldiers in pursuit. Last night, Carmen is surrounded by a bunch of immobile soldiers - she 1st climbs down a stairway into a trap door, but then it is like she (the actress) realizes she wasn't supposed to do that and runs back up the stairway. Then she runs around in a circle and finally jumps off the set in a Tosca-like manner. All the while, the soldiers (including Zuniga) just watch. It was completely silly - and it did not work. It was worse than the usual silliness of this scene.
3. I would like to think that if Bizet had lived he would have fixed the next problem. Act II - Carmen dances for Jose - the trumpets sound time for role-call (did he really not realize that he had no time for a visit?) They fight and then are interrupted by Zuniga. Then Zuniga and Jose fight. Traditionally, the smugglers (and chorus) appear and break up the fight and tie up Zuniga. Then they (the smugglers) ask Zuniga to join them in their criminal enterprise and Zuniga says YES!!!!!! And then, he threatens them and he is usually left tied up. The film version was funny here as it left Zuniga tied alone while everyone else went off to romantic interludes. Last night during Frankfurt production Jose kills Zuniga with a knife (lots of blood again). I thought this made a lot of sense dramatically. It explains why Jose now has to join the smugglers and it also contributes to the pyschopathic portrayal of Jose. The only problem last night were those silly lines about Zuniga joining up with the smugglers and threatening revenge. Here he is dying a bloody death and he is "oh, certainly, I would love to join your enterprise."
4. Every production of Carmen makes poor Remendado into Dr. Phil - trying to keep the fighting couple apart. Last night was an exception - the smugglers let them fight - until Escamillo arrives on the scene. I liked that. But the card game was absurdly staged (complete with the zombies from act I who appeared during the children's chorus?!?! Huh?) And what was the point of having Frasquita and Mercedes in their underwear for the whole opera. They never changed it - even though the opera takes place over some time. It seems to me that it would be difficult to climb the mountains dressed in lingerie. It was gratuitous. Yes they were cute - but it was silly and made no sense. Carmen, the sexiest of them all, was dressed appropriately for the smuggling task!
5. I loved the knife fight last night - that was the high point of the production. It was really well staged. I loved that Escamillo bests Jose and then Jose cheats.
6. Shooting Michaela was gratuitous. I appreciated that she had some spunk - but it was over the top. And having Carmen fighting with Michaela during the cigarette factory fight was silly.
7. Ok - I realize that the opening of Act IV is difficult for the chorus. But I have seen productions which cut the entire opening and start Act IV with the Escamillo and Carmen's declaration of love. It doesn't work. Find a way to do some of the opening chorus in this act. Also there is no excuse for cutting the Act IV entr'acte - as one production I saw did. THis is one of the most famous and brilliant orchestral pieces Bizet ever wrote and it sets the scene beautifully.
8. Last night the zombies came out and watched the fight between Carmen and Jose which was staged as a bull fight. Which I thought was silly - Carmen as the bull. They also killed off Escamillo - they carry his very bloody body on stage at the end of the scene. This desite the fact that the chorus keeps singing "Victoria!" Oh, but that was the zombies and they were singing at Carmen - huh???? And they finished it off with the execution of Jose - ok, fine.

It took 4 and a half hours - almost as long as Gotterdamerung because of all the silly commercials. But Rolando Villazon was spectacular. I loved the way he developed the obsession. During the duet with Michaela he was completely distracted by the flower. It worked. The rest of the cast was very good. I loved the young singers who played Zuniga, Morales, Frasquita, Mercedes, Remendado and Dancairo. The quintet was brilliant. Zuniga was the best Zuniga I have ever seen in that role - vocally and acting. Carmen was vocally magnificent - but her acting was not up to par with Villazon. The highlights were: the duet with Michaela, the quintet, the Flower aria and the knife fight. I would have included the final scene except I was so distracted by the zombies. So that is my 2 cents about Carmen.

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