CarmenÂ is one of the most famous, most often-played operas, and probably youâ€™ve heard some of its tunes, even if you donâ€™t remember. The composer, Frenchman Georges Bizet (1838â€“1875), wrote other operas as well as other sorts of music, but Carmen is the only work of his that has really survived.
It also was his last â€“ he died three months after its Paris premiere in 1875 â€“ and in fact, one could say that in Carmen, the composer converted all his talent, skills and experiences into an unsurpassable masterpiece to make himself immortal.
Even the best operatic material can be ruined by the way the producers put it on stage. Very fortunately, at the Leipzig Opera, where Carmen premiered on 30 November, Lindy Hume (direction) and Dan Potra (stage design, costumes) have refrained from imposing on the productionÂ that idiosyncratic modernism Leipzigâ€™s Schauspiel is so fond of.
The action on stage unfolds in front of, or between, two grey walls, and the actors / singers wear clothes matching the time and place of the plot â€“ except for the character Escamillo who, in his black fur collar / coat, looks like a mafia godfather rather than a torero.
To be sure, the operaâ€™s plot, though (roughly) based on a novella by prominent French writer Prosper MĂ©rimĂ©e (1803â€“1870), is rather artificial, but this is true of most operas.
Carmen is an attractive, self-assured gypsy working at a cigar factory. She seduces Don JosĂ©, a soldier of the local guard, and makes him join, like herself, a smuggling gang led by her friends Dancairo and Remendado. Although JosĂ© follows her, she then leaves him for bullfighter Escamillo. As she refuses to come back to him, JosĂ© ends up killing her.
But why does she refuse? Playing cards have foretold death for her and JosĂ©. Do you also doubt that a self-assured woman plunging soldiers into crime would give a damn about the â€śstatementsâ€ť of playing cards? Well, this is why I called the plot â€śartificial.â€ť
What really counts in an opera is the music, though it is remarkable that the plot of Carmen takes place in Seville â€“ just like, for example, Rossiniâ€™s Barber of Seville (1816), Beethovenâ€™s Fidelio (1814), or Mozartâ€™s Don Giovanni (1787). Yet none of these four operasÂ use that cityâ€™s language â€“ Spanish â€“ but rather Italian, German or, in Carmenâ€™s case, French.
Bizetâ€™s librettists Henri Meilhac (1830â€“1897) and Ludovic HalĂ©vy (1834â€“1908) were able to also make that language sound musical, though managing to keep it natural: â€śLove has never, never followed any rules,â€ť Carmen sings in her entrance aria; so â€śIf I love you, watch out!â€ť
The nickname of that aria is â€śHabanera,â€ť and throughout the opera, Bizetâ€™s music is inspired by Spanish, or Hispanic, tunes. Bizet adapted, augmented and arranged them so brilliantly that the three-hour opera never gets boring â€“ which many other composers donâ€™t achieve for even 30 minutes straight.
Already the overture couldnâ€™t be more spectacular. During it, the full Leipzig cast stood on stage, motionlessly watching the audience, which increased the musicâ€™s intensity.Â Then, one hit followed the next.
Contributing their unique share to the beauty are not only the entire orchestra and the singers, but also single instruments such as the bassoon, flute and harp, which have solos (if you listen closely).
Critic Joachim Lange (NMZ â€“ Neue Musikzeitung) found the â€śtraditionalâ€ť Leipzig production boring, but I say thank you, Hume and Potra, for respecting Bizet. They wouldnâ€™t need to violate him anyway, because theyâ€™re able to subtly express the personal messages they do have, within that respect and tradition.
For instance, in Act I, when Carmen and the other women working at the factory step outside to take a break, the soldiers and other men gather to ogle them, but the women remain on stairs â€“ above the men on the ground. We understand who, in the producers’ concept, the stronger sex is. In Act II, when Carmen flirts with Escamillo, the bullfighter, she wears a red dress â€“ and we understand the allure that she has on men.
Lange was â€śdisappointedâ€ť also by the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Matthias Foremny, as well as Wallis Giuntaâ€™s rendition of the title role, because she displayed â€śtoo little passion.â€ť Ironically, critic Peter Korfmacher (LVZ â€“ Leipziger Volkszeitung) liked exactly that about Giuntaâ€™s Carmen â€“ her being â€śnot temptation itself turned into sound, but more reflected, complexâ€ť, almost â€śintellectual.â€ť
I agree that in Giuntaâ€™s acting there were some stiff moments, and in general, her voice and appearance may be a little youthful for this role. However, in contrast to Lange and also Korfmacher, I found no other fault with the singers, choirs, or orchestra.
Above all, I donâ€™t share Langeâ€™s impression that the audience â€śdeniedâ€ť Giunta their applause for her â€śHabaneraâ€ť â€“ there simply was no time for it in this operaâ€™s rapid succession of highlights.
Moreover, I was quite impressed by the productionâ€™s use of light and shadow, although light designer Matthew Marshall wouldnâ€™t have needed to point blinding beams at us at the beginning of Act III.
If you donâ€™t usually go to the opera and want to give it a try, go and see Carmen in Leipzig on 22 December or on one of its subsequent dates, because there youâ€™ll see what â€śoperaâ€ť â€“ that peculiar mix of literature, theatre and musicÂ â€“ can and should accomplish.
However, if youâ€™re an expert, whether or not you’ll appreciate the show will, as illustrated by the criticsâ€™ contradicting each other, depend on your personal taste.