Monday, 4 September 2017

Bizet - Carmen (Aix, 2017)

Georges Bizet - Carmen

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Pablo Heras-Casado, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, Michael Fabiano, Elsa Dreisig, Michael Todd Simpson, Gabrielle Philiponet, Christian Helmer, Pierre Doyen, Guillaume Andrieux, Mathias Vidal, Pierre Grammont

ARTE Concert - 6th July 2017

Obviously there's going to be a significant proportion of an opera audience that are going to want their Carmen with all its idealised exoticism, wild gypsies and romantic passions; those are surely the essential ingredients listed on the package. That percentage might be significantly lower and expectations rather different at a production of Carmen at the Aix-en-Provence festival, particularly one directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov. The challenge surely is to repackage the work, but not change the ingredients too much, but is that even possible for a dish like Carmen...?

There's some truth to the idea that Tchernaikov's method is a cool Russian response to wild Latin passions, but there is a sense that the director is genuinely trying to find another way to connect with the underlying essence of the work. Tcherniakov's Carmen has one of his distancing constructs built around it, which he tends to do when an opera's plot is too ludicrous to take seriously in this day and age. Similar to his Il Trovatore for La Monnaie - another over-heated drama - it encloses the work within a kind of dramatic version of inverted commas, where the story is played out by a group of actors in a role-playing exercise.  

The introduction shows a husband and wife whose marriage has lost its sparkle, who have gone to an unusual form of counselling that involves role-playing. The administrator has examined the questionnaire and profiles and has determined that the opera Carmen is the best fit for therapy. The husband will be Don José, his wife later participating as Micaëla in an effort to eventually draw her husband and his Carmen experiences back into the real world. Tchernaikov then ditches the conventional spoken dialogue pieces of Carmen and replaces them with various interventions from the administrative staff and actors who read out the stage directions in preparation for the next scene.

The Carmen role-play all takes place within an office-like environment with everyone donning name badges of the characters they will play. There's certainly nothing of the more familiar Sevillian imagery of seductive gypsy women and macho bullfighters, the Carmen of this production an actress who acts self-assured but who in reality is a little self-conscious, struggling awkwardly with the rose in her hair and a little embarrassed at the kind of role she has to play. Her aim however is not to seduce Don José in the traditional manner as much as encourage him to participate, to inject a little imagination and find a way to let some passion back into his life.

Such a construct proves to be a little infuriating in places, with a lot of silly fooling around that risks over-complicating and distorting the intent of the original work. Arguably, the romanticism of Carmen is already implicit in the idealised exoticism of its imagery and rhythms and in the artificial construct of the opera drama. Surely no-one thinks that Carmen is a work of social realism and everyone is aware of opera as heightened drama and passions? On the other hand, stepping back a little further does provide a way of looking at the themes and the passions of the work in a more (post-)modern context.

Whether it needs this kind of reconstruction and updating is debatable then, but there is a case to be made that Dmitri Tcherniakov is just turning the focus of the opera back onto the dramatic content of Bizet's musical arrangements to see if it still stands up and achieves its aims when removed from all the lazy mannerisms that have become attached to the work. It could be argued that by cutting most of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy's dialogues and plotting, liberating it from the opera-comiqué conventions that would have been similarly restrictive to the composer, Tcherniakov is even reducing the work down to its purest essence.

Even if you have to indulge Tcherniakov's twisting of the plot, it does turn the focus back to the power of the music to tell its own story and to touch on the underlying reality. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado works with Tcherniakov on this with arrangements that might not always be "authentic" to the intentions of the original, but which through their ringing rhythms and popular melodies nonetheless touch on the passions at the heart of the work. Like this production's "Don José", the music similarly has to find its own inner truth and connect with it afresh to put some real excitement back in there, rather than just relying on lazy mannerisms and faked emotions.

It's important to find your way into Carmen, but you can't run into it blindly, Tcherniakov's production seems to say, and it's important to find your way out again refreshed by the experience and not ready to murder someone. I think. With this director, you never know quite where that will lead, whether to take it entirely seriously or even if it all will make sense. This is after all a director who completely reversed the ending to Dialogues des Carmélites (a controversial move that led to a legal challenge and the DVD of the Paris production being removed from sale), so there is always the potential for it to be as if you were seeing a work for the first time. And if you can do that with Carmen, that's really something.

If Carmen felt fresh and held one's attention once again at the 2017 Aix-en-Provence festival, a lot of it was also to do with the casting. The singing might have been slightly compromised by the need to act in and out of character, but only slightly. Interpretation counted for more in this production and Stéphanie d'Oustrac's Carmen and Michael Fabiano as Don José were never anything less than committed and passionate in their performances, delving deep into the complex personalities that Tcherniakov has created for them here. Elsa Dreisig's Micaëla was also excellent and made a great impression.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert