First night: Covent Garden’s new Carmen is trivial and misogynist

norman lebrecht

April 06, 2024

First-night review for Slippedisc by Alastair Macaulay

Carmen is – thrillingly and subversively – the freest woman in all opera; Don José – the role that the great bass Feodor Chaliapin said was the only part that made him want to be a tenor – is the borderline-psychopath lover who kills the woman he loves. And all this happens in Spain, with music by Bizet that has often seemed to recapture Spanishness even for the Spanish. How can you go wrong with such irresistible ingredients?

Alas, the list of answers to this question is all too long. Opera-goers in recent decades have seen Carmen in a gorilla suit, in a car dump, and in other peculiar versions.

Still, there were excellent reasons to look forward to the Royal Opera’s new production of “Carmen”, which had its premiere on Friday night. It had admirable and world-class interpreters of the leading three roles – the Russian mezzosoprano Aigul Akhmetshina (Carmen), the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala (José), the Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska (Micaëla) – and a good conductor, Antonello Manacorda. Listening to music I have known well for over sixty years, I was amazed to find myself unable to keep still: its highlights become newly infectious with Manacorda.

And yet this “Carmen” is considerably more trivial than the sum of its parts – and considerably more misogynist. The director Damiano Michieletto, the set designer Paolo Fantin, the costume designer Carla Teti, and – above all – the lighting designer Alessandro Carletti have all conspired to take the importance out of “Carmen”.

The sets (vaguely banana-republic) seldom keep still. Restlessly, as if fidgeting, they revolve to and fro, clockwise and anticlockwise, never to good effect. It might be refreshing to have Carmen and the other female cigarette workers appear in dungarees and jeans – modern working girls – but it’s disappointing to find Carmen and her girlfriends later appearing in more clichéd outfits, including hot pants. The bullfighter Escamillo wears a lemon-and-lime suit. Micaëla – a gross caricature of the usual simple country girl – is pointedly dowdy, not only wearing thick glasses (“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses”) but busily readjusting both them and her rosary. The star characters often sing with their faces in shadow. The lighting rig competes with the various characters for attention until finally it upstages José’s murder of Carmen by aiming its full glare at the audience.

The only characters whom Michieletto makes appealing are a group of children. True, he makes them unimportant during their big Act One number (when they should be enchanting street urchins). But he brings them back for the entr’actes, when they hold up cardboard letters that spell out such stage directions as “Un mois plus tard.” This is adorable (though Michieletto eventually overplays its adorability). So why can’t Michieletto make any of the central characters likeable this way?

He also deploys a recurrent fate device that is both clunky and nasty. An old lady, in traditional black Spanish attire (mantilla and all), ponderously haunts the production as its Fate figure, melodramatically shuffling the cards throughout the overture’s fate theme until, centre-stage, she flourishes the Death card at us. During her several return visits, it emerges she is José’s neglected mother. And she – while bitterly opposed to the sexy Carmen – is very keen on the dowdy Micaëla. Poor José, you see, becomes a victim of three tiresome women: he has the passive-aggressive mother from hell, the pushy and unattractive wannabe-girlfriend Micaëla, and the obvious, sexy, if tiresomely lightweight Carmen. The misogyny of Michieletto’s approach isn’t obvious at first, but builds incrementally. Still, I couldn’t help wishing he made José stab his wretched mother rather than his poor silly Carmen.

Beczala’s José and Kulchynska’s Micaëla, both singing marvellously, almost transcend this dreary ghastliness. Beczala’s voice has grown in size and power with no loss of line; his singing is now strongly reminiscent of Nicolai Gedda’s in timbre and verbal eloquence. Kulchynska, though the production makes her over-act badly, sings with ever-growing purity, strength, and touching expressiveness, a fascinating amalgam of vulnerability and purposefulness.

Akhmetshina burst into fame as Carmen before the pandemic: in summer 2019, she transcended the gorilla suit of Covent Garden’s last production. Now all of twenty-seven, she is the globally in-demand Carmen of the moment. She has personal and vocal glamour, a dark-bright-vibrant voice of astounding presence and allure with no apparent weakness, a handsome physique, and easy stage physicality.

Yet by now she should be making far more verbal point of such lines as “Je ne pars pas” and “Je suis amoureuse.” Instead she relies on delivering the French language in excessively covered Eastern European vowels with little bite to her consonants. And though Michieletto is the main reason why this Carmen becomes a largely superficial character, one must blame Akhmetshina for not proclaiming such words as “la liberté” as if Carmen knew their deep significance. This is a Carmen who scarcely seems to know her own mind.

I get lost in the number of different editions of “Carmen” that have been heard in the last sixty years. This one is among the least interesting, with acres of orchestral preamble to some big numbers that top them of surprise. “Carmen,” one of the miraculous masterworks of music theatre, seems more repetitious and less suspenseful than ever before.

Kostas Smoriginas’s Escamillo is a charmless bore. The cast is littered with past and present members of the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists Scheme from Armenia,. Canada, the Congo, and Lithuania. When you compare their singing to that of British singers on a live Covent Garden performance from 1973, you find the French utterance of 2024 is less distinct and the vocalism less impressive. Abandon hope of singing in the foremost opera houses of your native land, talented British singers of today!