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Celebrating José Cura--Singer, Conductor, Director

 

 

 

Carmen @ La Scala

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Carmen @ La Scala

 

Low voltage Carmen in Emma Dante's return to La Scala

 

Bachtrack

James Imam

 30 March 2015

 

This is the year of Milan's Expo - the international Summer exhibition on everyone's lips - for which La Scala have extended their season and pulled some old productions out of the wardrobe. Emma Dante's Carmen received a famously mixed reception at 2009's season-opening performance from press and public alike. Barenboim assured it would become "a legend production", whilst traditionalist opera director Franco Zeffirelli claimed that it had caused him to see the devil.

This year's version remains largely intact, though the original star-studded cast has received an overhaul. There was often a lack of chemistry between tonight's leading roles this time around. Elīna Garanča's blonde Carmen possesses an innocent streak, and her cheery "Habanera" lacked the necessary sass to get our pulses racing. José Cura's Don José is world-weary and seemingly old enough to be Carmen's father - impassible and often immobile, he hardly flinched when Micaëla relayed news from his dying mother, sweetly conveyed by Elena Mosuc as this was. Such a low voltage rapport between the main characters made it difficult to buy into the plot's tragic developments or the various directorial quirks. In a reversal to conventional practice, Carmen rather than José plunged the dagger into her heart at the work's climax, which was a somewhat implausible feature when there had been so little in the way of a dramatic buildup.

But in spite of these weaknesses, there were moments where the characters' relationships started to kindle. Carmen ensnared her captor José with a hazy "Tra la la", entangling him in the suspended ropes that bound her arms, and the tension bubbled in a candelabra littered Lillia Pastia's, with José tormented and Carmen burning with resentment at his refusal to desert the army. There is by now some wobble to Cura's voice, but he is capable of shifting cleanly through the gears to find an emotive range.

Massimo Zanetti, a dapper silver fox of a conductor, overflowed with energy, and we might have wanted him to steal through the texture more often to provide some oomph. The prelude to Act III had utter poise, whilst that to Act IV brimmed with joie de vivre and all the zest of Seville oranges: smouldering strings, lippy brass and rapping tambourine. And there were also heart-warming contributions from gypsy swashbucklers Frasquita and Mercédès, charmingly conveyed by Hanna Hipp and Sofia Mchedlishvili respectively. There is impressive depth and sheen to Mchedlishvili's voice who, like her fast-rising compatriot Anita Rachvelishvili, is a product of the La Scala Academy.

A much bigger problem in this production than casting or individual performances was posed by the direction and scenography. Dante shares with Zeffirelli his penchant for buzzing, bustling sets, which was easy on the eye in the case of Act I's heaving piazza with marching children, trinket flashing gypsies and a woman giving birth. But incongruities between the sets cause disorientation when we switch to a geometric blankness for Act III's mountains, or to Act II's Lillia Pastia's Inn in an underground lair, borrowed from a James Bond villain perhaps, where a slowly descending dumb waiter didn't allow Escamillo the most imposing entry. Without grounding in time, place or a coherent aesthetic, the narrative is left to flap helplessly in the wind.

In particular, Dante has the tendency to clog the drama with cloying symbolism. Religious imagery abounds, for example with a hearse crossing the stage to spell out Carmen's imminent death from the off. When factory girls dressed as nuns disrobe to nightdresses before frolicking in a steam-filled fountain, we are unsure whether we are supposed to feel aroused or amused. Far from sharpening our focus, the symbolism tends towards the obscure, and it is often gratuitously nauseating, so that watching bloodied factory girls kicked into the air by raving soldiers made for an uncomfortable sitting. It was surely no coincidence that moments of dramatic clarity coincided with respite in the stream of allegory.

 

 

 

                  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     

 

   

                       

 

 

 

Carmen Bleeds but Passions Die

Random Thoughts / BravoCura

A contradiction at La Scala:  Carmen, an opera that explodes with passionate music, provocative women, and testosterone-fueled men remained stubbornly listless with a production that inundated the stage with red but remained curiously bloodless.  Emma Dante’s directorial concepts were ill-conceived and implemented with such heavy-hand that they both overwhelmed and undermined Bizet’s slender drama.  Not even the formidable talents of José Cura and Elina Garanca were able to salvage the evening.     

Carmen is not the story of the Catholic Church stalking a deviant spirit who threatens the conservative teaching of the institution, driving the gypsy to suicide and ending with a smug, congratulatory procession; this is pure invention by Dante. To introduce original elements to a work requires the director find a way to form visceral connections and create the cause and effect that illuminate the plot; that was missing in Dante’s retelling.  Instead, we had inconsequential busywork filling the stage at inappropriate times, gratuitous violence and passionless passion. The tragedy of Carmen and Don José is superseded by the triumph of the Church.

Carmen is not a feminist manifesto, and feminism is not an excuse for women on women violence or men on women violence—such activity is never a cause for levity.  Act I featured a fight between women which concluded in near slapstick hair pulling, wild, bizarrely exaggerated faces, choreographed flips to display panties and enough blood to mark the stage floor for the rest of the opera, followed by male guards brutalizing a prone woman.  Nor does feminism function as a means to introduce pre-pubescent girls into prostitution, which this Carmen appears to do. 

Carmen is not about the emasculation of men; Carmen’s excess does not depend on Don José’s constraint. In truth, Carmen is a shallow character who dominates with catchy music and provocative lifestyle but her pursuit of freedom covers an adolescent refusal to accept responsibility.  In most productions, her superficiality is compensated with exploitive sexuality but in Milan even that aspect was blunted: this Carmen was more flirt than vixen, more tease than temptress, more innuendo than heat. And Dante’s Don José, the character with the most complicated music and the most persuasive developmental line in the opera, was turned into a cipher, leaning passively against a wall or sitting passively against a stone for swatches of time.  He was never allowed to generate the prerequisite carnal heat usually associated with the character's motivation:  in Act II, after release from prison, his initial sexual encounter with Carmen consisted of taking off his jacket and slowly rolling up his shirt sleeves--certainly not the actions of a man in need of sexual release.  Cura did manage to reclaim some dynamic control by killing Carmen rather than allowing her to commit suicide (as dictated by Director Dante in her notes) but the impact of his desperate act is immediately lost in the distraction of the Catholic procession which, unfortunately, left Don José once more passively off to the side.

In short, the director reinterpreted Carmen and created a fatal imbalance between opera and director, between storytelling and ego, between Carmen and Don José.   Nothing the two leads could do could undo the director’s conceit.  How much better the evening would have been had Dante simply stuck to libretto and trusted the instincts of her stars.

Next week:  an act by act recap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About La Scala

The performances in this production, despite the directorial overreach, were world class and probably in any other theater in the world the singers would have been celebrated with standing ovations and unending applause. In Milan, everyone got booed (some more than others).  The bulk of the disruption came from the ‘cheap seats’ [loggia] where a group of folks gather to boo—that is all they do and all they come to do.  Depending on where you sit, you hear them as overwhelmingly loud or not at all; sadly the artists on stage hear them all too well. The booing has nothing at all to do with the quality of the performance but the mentality of a small group of La Scala regulars. It should be a huge source of embarrassment for the theater and they should move to limit or reduce the nuisance booer (and those who are paid to do so) but on some level we sensed management encourages it and may even take some pride in it.    

La Scala is the typical horseshoe auditorium. Orchestra stalls are fine and recommended if you can afford them; they at least allow good sight lines. The boxes on the side walls are narrow and deep: if you go, do anything you can to avoid any seat in the boxes on the side except front row (boxes more toward the back may have better options).  Anything else is an expensive ticket for standing room only.  I was in third balcony, third box first row seat, stage right.  My knees were jammed into the partition and the lady in the front row seat beside me kept asking for more room—there was no more to give.  From my perch I could see half of the stage—and that was craning over the body of the lady in box 2 next to me who was lying across the railing and obscuring a lot of stage with head and shoulders (she was just trying to see as well). The two people behind the front row had to stand the entire opera and lean over those of us in the first row, making the box even more hot and stuffy than it already was.  It was not a pleasant experience and both music and body suffered as a result.

But at least I had it better than Kira, who was in box 5 in balcony 2, stage right.  She was in the second row (the theater sold out for this performance within ten minutes so we took the seats we could.)  Although she was lower down and further back, from her seat she had absolutely no sightline to the stage.  At best, she could see the first balcony on the other side and a glimpse of the curtain, stage left.  The theater is obviously aware this is a completely blind seat because in a four seat box they added a fifth, behind the other second row person.  By standing  or kneeling on that fifth seat and dodging the bobbing head of the standing woman in front of her, Kira could see less than half of the stage some of the time. 

Which brings us to sound.  La Scala has an international reputation as an opera house so one assumes the sound quality would be spectacular.  We had one performance in the orchestra stalls and the sound was fine—certainly not spectacular but all right.  Once we got to the boxes, however, that changed.  Certainly front row was satisfactory but the back row in box five was so far back in a narrow space that sound was muffled and muddy;  not only did it have to find its way back to the ears but it had to survive the heavy paneling of the walls.  That we were paying high price for what turned out to be a dead zone (visually and aurally) was a huge disappointment.

A couple of other things of note:  La Scala has the most bizarre refreshment process we have ever experienced:  you have to stand in line at the cashier to order and pay, then you have to stand in another line to get your order.  With hundreds of people milling around and jockeying for attention during a 20 minute intermission, it seems pretty impossible to succeed—especially if you have to visit the restrooms (good luck!) during the same break.  We gave up and assumed some people paid for refreshments they were unable to get.  Also, La Scala programs for each performance are quite expensive (15 Euros per book, compared to 5 Euros at most other theaters) and the photos contained in the programs weren’t even from the current production.

Bathroom facilities are limited and rather than expand stalls the theater has introduced unisex stalls.  A solution but perhaps not the best.

We were absolutely disappointed in our first, and perhaps last, trip to this famous theater.  The facilities are below average, the acoustics are no more than average, and even with an excellent production with extraordinary singers, the people in the balconies who live to boo ruined the experience.  We would rate the experience as horrible if not for the wonderful effort of the musicians who deserve combat pay for enduring their stay in Milan. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"There's a basic purity in the gypsy girl's game of seduction, a purity we associate with animals and children, whose behavior gives us a glimpse of something angelic." -- Emma Dante

 

Carmen "is assigned the place of the contemporary martyr in a bigoted village"  -- Emma Dante 

 

 

"Solitary, introverted, distant from everything, [Don José is] like a unassailable fortress in the middle of a desert." -- Emma Dante

 

 

 

"In Micaela's following there's a priest...who, in the first act, celebrates her wedding with Don José."  -- Emma Dante

 

 

"Carmen is surrounded by children, like a cow followed by a swarm of flies." -- Emma Dante

 

"What's the attraction that his pure and uncontaminated nature triggers off?" -- Emma Dante

 

 

 

“Carmen is frightening.  She frightens everyone: the Church, society…” -- Emma Dante, Director

I like logical consistency. I crave connections. I want images that grow with the characters, motifs that develop from bits and pieces into statements made clearly and boldly. I don’t like breadcrumbs that lead to dead ends: let them guide us to something strong and courageous. Innovate by audaciously expanding the space that exists within the original work; don’t cram unrelated content into it from the outside. In the beginning is the source. It has stood the test of time and it is good. Trust it. Respect it.

Unfortunately, director Emma Dante doesn’t do either. Her production of Carmen never coalesced into a compelling narrative, never integrated disjointed, fragmentary ideas into a cohesive plotline, never captured the desperate darkness that ultimately suffocates both Carmen and Don José.  Dante failed to create characters who touched us enough to care what happened to them. 

Dante’s declaration that Carmen “frightens everyone” sets the storyline spinning in a direction that neither libretto nor music support and which eventually chills the tragedy: this feminist manifesto requires that Carmen’s life of carefree abandon jeopardize the status quo and undermine the control of the conservative Church. The approach fundamentally alters the opera: Carmen isn’t a self-absorbed, pleasure seeking gypsy and part-time thief but a prototype of the multi-tasking career woman who can’t be tied to one man. In the end, Dante’s Carmen isn’t killed by Don José, not really; she is killed by the repressed society who views the free-wheeling, free-thinking, free-loving gal as an existential threat. 

Dante’s vision of Carmen as forerunner of modern females requires she soften Carmen to make her more sympathetic while marginalizing the leading man to lessen his importance. She poses Don José against walls, sits him off to the side, has him stand or lie with his back to the audience, keeps him from physically interacting too often with Carmen and generally minimizes his existence. This is cramming, shoving, and squeezing unrelated content, indeed, to impose a Carmen-centric reading.

Bizet’s Carmen was a capricious and amoral schemer countered by a much more complex and darker character, Don José.  This character is pulled apart by competing loyalties; he develops and that development is reflected in the most complicated music and most evolving musical line—without the deepening psychosis of Don José, Bizet’s Carmen would live long and happily.  But Dante ignores Bizet’s story to present a Carmen as a brave and fearless “angel” who dares take on both God and man. Dante’s focus on Carmen’s bubbling cauldrons of emotions unhappily ignores the 'emotional desert' Don José, the man whose disintegration drives the narrative. 

As a result, José Cura, one of the world’s finest singing actors, a performer whose charismatic presence electrifies the audience and who dominates the stage even when his character is not the center of action, too often gets lost in Dante’s staging.  And that is a pity, not only because of the magic Cura brings with him but because the director’s contrived constraint of Don José imbalances the work.

And so we have a production in which Bizet’s Carmen becomes backdrop to the director’s concept. What is this tale of tantalizing seduction, illicit love, raging jealousy and violent death if passion is muted?   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“It is impossible to leave [the village] unless an empty hearse comes to take some fated unfortunate away…” -- Emma Dante, Director

Act I

Opening scene:  fairly traditional set in uncertain time, brick buildings that may not be exactly Seville-like, the town’s stone watering trough center stage, men and women busy doing domestic chores (cleaning rugs).  In the first reveal of Director Emma Dante’s major reconstruction of Carmen [escape is possible only through death], a religious procession featuring an empty black hearse wheels slowly across stage as black clad women with obscured faces follow behind; these furies will return throughout the opera to move silently and invisibly through episodes in Carmen’s life. Though the town is populated by half-clothed women of questionable morality, women who offer stolen goods as easily as they give their bodies and who engage in violent and bloody fights, Carmen has been singled out.  

At the back corner (stage left) a group of five women sit, rhythmically and energetically bowing in alternating sets; in the foreground stage right a trio of men sits in chairs, mouths agape, fanning themselves for twenty minutes, inert males merely taking up space. A heavily pregnant woman and helper arrive, laboriously moving to the trough; the helper splashes water over her.   

The friend helps the woman, now clearly giving birth, toward the group of women in chairs.  A bowl appears and the water images continue as the woman writhes and pushes and the women encourage. Suddenly they all leave the stage, baby unborn. We never again see them or the infant. Without an actual birth we can’t say the cycle from birth to death is complete but maybe it is another feminist thing, that while the men sleep women are creating life. Perhaps it is meant to represent that in spite of the Church’s desire to destroy Carmen, another Carmen has already been born.  But why put something on stage if it signifies nothing? Head scratch. 

Micaëla arrives. She is Little Black Riding Hood, clutching her hooded cape protectively around her, Carmen’s reversed image: completely covered, a shy, pure, impossibly sweet and loving, loyal woman.  Told Don José will be arriving at the changing of the guards, she primly runs off, promising to return.

The change in troop signals the arrival of Don José.  He parades at the head of the line, stern, unsmiling, completely focused as the troops fill the stage ("Solitary, introverted, distant from everything”). Another group appears, soldiers without jackets but bearing nearly naked young boys on their backs. They goose-step across the stage until they fall senseless to the ground as the boys jump off and scamper around the stage in their tidy whities, turning cartwheels and running and jumping. Once more the messaging is unclear. Within each man there is a parasitic young boy ready to break out and break free?  That we all carry burdens that can run amok if given a chance? That the child is father to the man? That we are never truly alone, that we are always the combination of the past and present? That inside each man is trapped an adolescent rascal? Don José is off to the side, staring impassively as the boys cavort. His child appears to have gone AWOL.

After the boys run off the stage, Don José climbs the steps on stage right and disappears. 

The women in the cigarette factory (or nunnery, to Dante) appear, in a slow procession of twos to mirror the original stately Catholic Church procession of the opening, each dressed in black with a white cowl and each with a large flower obscuring her mouth. We know the flower image will reverberate through the first half of the opera because of the link between Carmen and the flower Don José carries with him into prison, the mystical flower that refuses to die and retains the sweet smell of the gypsy throughout his confinement. Do these monastic flower-bearing women somehow correspond to the naked little boys? Is the message that boys will be boys and free spirited forever but women must somehow conform and be prisoner of their flower-like, repressed nature?

Once at the water trough the girls throw away their flowers, momentarily bringing their cowls up over their heads to appear as religious penitents. Just as quickly they fling off the black robes to display short slips. The men rush over with their chairs—chairs and men rearranging chairs appear to be Dante’s attempt to be innovative and dynamic on the set; she will replay this choreography several more times before the end of the evening. Water play begins as the women caress each other, splash water on each other, rub water on each other and into each other’s hair. Steam rises from the water for the first time—representing hell, the cigarette factory, the carnal nature of the women, the censer from church?

In spite of the half-dressed, wet women dancing provocatively in front of them, the soldiers demand Carmencita come out—and she does, accompanied by five pre-pubescent girls who serve throughout the opera as her acolytes.  [According to Dante, Carmen is “a cow followed by a swarm of flies.”] She doffs her robe, steps onto the edge of the stone trough, douses herself, and begins to sing (L'amour est un oiseau rebelle) while moving in a moderately--rather than hyper--sexual fashion.   

Don José reappears at the top of the steps, leans against the wall and non-emotes and non-responds to Carmen’s provocative display except to wipe sweat from his brow; he watches without apparent interest, even when Carmen singing directly to him. She sends one of her mini-me girls to him; he rejects the child but does come down the steps. Carmen sends the child back to throw the ‘flower’ from Carmen at him. Don José doesn’t react.    

Everyone leaves except Don José—the only character who has no entourage. Despite his self-discipline, he has, in fact, been tempted by Carmen and her flower. Micaëla appears, trailed by a priest and two altar boys; they busy themselves setting up chairs at the back of the stage in front of a crooked cross and apparently say mass. Crosses that never quite manage to stand upright are another ongoing Dante meme?

We see the first flicker of true emotion from Don José, a smile of pleasure and delight and devotion that mark him as a good and decent man; no evidence of the solitary, introverted, distant from everything male, no sign of blackness foreshadowing of the obsessive, dangerous man who will lose control of himself and kill.  He seems a nice, sincere man who has open affection for both his mother and this woman.

Micaëla has brought Don José a letter (Parle-moi de ma mère!), which includes a ring, from his mother. She throws off her black hood and the black garb unfolds to become a white wedding dress. With Don José marginalized stage left, the altar boys carry white netting from the back of the stage to drape Micaëla in her wedding veil. Micaëla and Don José sing, Micaëla center stage with the religious motif behind her, encased in the veil—the desired goal of ‘good’ women but at the same time a constricting, restraining prison that ends in madness. She presses her hands against the fabric in wonderment.

The altar boys remove the veil, the priest helps Micaëla return to Black Riding Hood form and they leave. Don José retreats to the top of his stairs. [Per Dante, the priest performed the marriage service, adding a unique element to the plot that isn’t exploited.  Don José retains the ring.]

The slip-clad cigarette girls rush the stage as the soldiers return. A choreographed fight begins, with several carefully aligned rows of paired women, the front ones on the ground, the back pair pulling their hair. The girls scream silently with grotesquely distorted faces, then flip so undies are shown, then flip again, then slide backwards only to slide forward to start the process over. Pull, make a face, flip, panties, pull, make a face, flip, panties. The brutalized girls go face down on the stage, all of them arching back up, blood streaming from their mouths and covering their faces and dripping into stagnant puddles on the stage—Dante seems to like bloody images. The soldiers aim guns but with little effect. One girl is separated from the others and a soldier repeatedly kicks her in the stomach, the girl pushing upward from the ground and thumping back down at the contact—but despite the unnecessary brutality the girl brushes off the attack and is ready to fight again.   

Don José is sent after Carmen and returns with her in custody. She is defiant, freely offering her hair in a display of disdain (Tra la la... Coupe-moi, brûle-moi). Long ropes that stretch from the front of the stage to high up on top of the buildings in the back of stage are used to bind (very loosely) Carmen’s hands and everyone except Carmen and Don José leave. Carmen begins her serpentine dance (Seguidilla) to seduce Don José, wrapping the long ropes around him, eventually managing to shackle him by slipping one of her ropes onto his wrist in heavy-handed foreshadowing. Carmen promises him a reward when he meets her at Lillas Pastia's tavern if he helps her. After he does so, he immediately surrenders and remains impassive even when hit by his lieutenant.

 End of Act I.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Performance:  We love Elīna Garanča.  She's a beautiful woman, a fine actress, and has a wonderful voice that is lush, full-bodied, ringing, especially in the higher note range. Her technique seems seamless, her vocal flexibility impressive. She is one of our favorite female singers and we love listening to her. That said, her voice is bright and beautiful but without the edge of darkness that--to us, at least--makes Carmen the dangerous role it is. And while she can do sexy well, she doesn’t seem to do erotic. In that sense, she fit into Dante’s vision of Carmen as a misunderstood heroine / angel but falls somewhat short of our  ideal. Regardless of the quibbles, she is a marvelous, committed talent and we are happy to hear her in any role.

In contrast, José Cura, a singer who repeatedly is judged to be without technique, is able to modulate his voice to reflect a full range of vocal emotions. He can lightened his dark tenor to sweetness, as in the duet with Micaëla, and then immediately deepen and darken and add the edge of danger and violence to it.  His may not be the most flexible instrument from note to note but across a dramatic role it tells the story in ways that other, more conventional singers simply cannot. Cura vocalism as Don José was solid, convincing, and totally appropriate. And when not constrained physically as he sometimes seems to be in Milan by Dante’s staging, he can be sexy and erotic, endearing and dangerous, a formidable force in the role. Bravo.  

General Comments:  Dante builds the contrast between the traditional woman (Micaëla) who wants love and family and Carmen who wants lust and freedom. She also irrevocably ties the good woman to the church, since Micaëla is escorted throughout the play by a clergyman and altar boys.   

Dante, however, attempts too much in her twin overarching themes: everyone fears Carmen and no one leaves the village except through death is not a theme found in Bizet. There is never any sense of claustrophobia against which Carmen can revolt; she is free to move at will throughout the opera, though the Church trails behind her. And far from being feared by one and all, Carmen is well-liked and popular. 

Interestingly, Don José is the only character who exists as a single individual; everyone else has an entourage. It seems an awkward twist on Dante’s reading of Carmen as free and unfettered: Carmen simply cannot exist without a mobile society that supports her; it is a mutually parasitic community, but a community none-the-less.  The one character who truly is free, Don José, is without the support / constraints of society and becomes the most dangerous. 

The rope scene is the first time Carmen and Don José are alone but in spite of the efforts of Cura and Garanca the scene never fully comes alive or us. It appears as if Dante pulls back from true canal intimacy to present a relatively sanitized Carmen—her angel rather than Bizet’s devil. There is almost a prim relationship between Carmen and Don José that constrains the rest of the opera as well.  It might just be that the introduction of the long ropes and the stylized interaction was too staid for the work.

The ‘escape’ scene that ends the act is not convincingly staged:  Carmen is being led through a group a soldiers, she pushes Don José who staggers but doesn’t fall or significantly interferes with the other soldiers who could have easily captured the gypsy had they wanted to do so.  It seemed anti-climatic.  

While we all know operas are carefully choreographed and rehearsed, it’s always nice when the action seems organic and to flow naturally.  One of our favorite quotes from Cura deal with the fact that while we, the audience, are all on tiptoes looking in the window to watch the work unfold, the characters on stage are never supposed to be aware we are watching this slice of life that is their private world. That suspension never happened at La Scala. Perhaps because of a lot of busywork on stage and what seemed to be illogical sub-themes that diluted the story, there seemed little spontaneity in Act I. A bit of a mutiny by the superb actors and singers in the cast would have been welcomed. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

A quick kill for the rest of the opera and Dante’s staging:  there isn’t a lot more to say about the production when the director seems to have misread the libretto, misheard the music, and misunderstood the characters who inhabit the play.  It must be stated unequivocally, however, that both principles conducted themselves with the expected professionalism that allowed them to rise above the ho-hum production.

Act II

We have smugglers and thieves and banditos who have gathered in their favorite safe zone:  an underground bunker at Lillas Pastia's tavern, accessible only by two large elevators. In reality, of course, no self-respecting bad guy would make such a logistical error as trapping himself underground with limited escape routes but Dante is so focused on her misunderstood angel that nuances escape her. A more generous reading is that this is her way of showcasing Carmen in the underworld, with all who interact with her descending to the hell that Carmen represents. 

The opening features elements we have already become too familiar with: men moving the chairs while women show their panties. Le Remendado and Le Dancaire collect a group in the back of the stage and proceed to throw money—lots and lots of money—around: business has been very good. We think this is Dante’s attempt at ironic comedy.

Escamillo and his entourage drop down the elevators, Escamillo in his blue silk toreador costume and his acolytes in white long robes and hoods. In a way, he is the male equivalent of Carmen, superficial but vivacious, risking danger for the sensation of being alive, the constant center of attention, totally absorbed and absolutely pleased in himself. He mounts the table to sing his anthem while his entourage unfurl unimaginably horrible, yet actual, photos of bleeding, tortured bulls and then parade behind him.   The spectacle is stomach churning and in no way justified even as a faux protest against bull fighting, since the entire stage is filled with singing, happy, adoring throngs who revel in Escamillo’s presence and seem even more excited and happy when the bloody photos are unwrapped.  Carmen, of course, is enchanted.  But she has a promise to keep and so Escamillo leaves, to be followed quickly by the arrival of Don José. 

The shopkeepers thoughtfully bring a picnic blanket, candles, and food for the reunited couple.  There is little sexually charge electricity in the reunion--there is Dante’s simple stagecraft (Don José taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves, only to have to roll them back down and put the jacket back on shortly). The act picks up passion when Don José sings his flower song ("La fleur que tu m'avais jetée"--with José Cura providing some of the sweetest of sounds imaginable and with the audience appropriately rewarding his brilliance with applause and bravi).  What Dante seems to forget is that Carmen is every bit Don José’s story, and at this point the man is still struggling to retain dignity, and self-worth: this is a pivot point in the opera and once Don José is forced to abandon his better self through Carmen’s machinations, the fate of both is sealed:  the proud man throws away his honor and integrity and fills the vacuum with devotion to an inconsistent woman becomes a dangerous man, indeed.  Dante again pours blood on the opera with Don José knifing Zuniga, copious blood spreading over the military man’s white shirt as he is dragged to the corner and further assaulted by Carmen’s ‘friends.’ This is not simple assault but perhaps a murder, and Don José has no option other than to flee with the gypsy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Act III

Act III opens to the usual desolate Act III setting, except for rows of tall plants crowned with flowers on top—these props actually serve no purpose and will soon and unceremoniously be revealed to be people who doff their flower garbs and become members of the smuggler gang.  If there is method to the madness, it goes undetected. 

The smugglers, including Carmen and Don José, descend from the mountains, both of them accompanied by young girls.  Once down, Carmen pulls the girl Don José is shepherding away from him and glares.  It is obvious she is over her one-time soldier and just as obvious he doesn’t know why or how to handle it:  he has given up everything for her, his life as a military man, Micaëla, his mother, his honor, his dignity and she can’t stand to look at him.  [As always, Cura is superb in conveying conflicting, complex emotions.] Carmen tells everyone to sleep but as they do Frasquita and Mercédès read the future and Carmen learns she will die, as will Don José; she accepts the inevitability of it.  While the card game continues, the five black clad women from Act I have entered the stage, each carrying a large number of small crosses. They crisscross the space, placing the mark of death on each of the camp followers until there is a small cemetery of crosses rising from the prone bodies. When they wake, the smugglers drop the crosses and everyone heads out of the camp, leaving Don José to guard the stolen goods.  He soon heads out after them, leaving the camp empty.

Micaëla arrives, accompanied as always by her priest and two altar boys.  Her hair is slightly gray and she looks tired and somehow older. The altar boys pick up the crosses that have been dropped. The five black clad women slowly cross the stage with a cross and a pure white Jesus figure to place upon it.  As always, the cross is tilted.  At the sound of a shot, Micaëla and her escorts leave, the sculpture of Jesus is knocked from the cross and shatters, and the five women collect both cross and Christ body parts and scurry away. 

Don José and Escamillo appear, the bonhomie moment giving way to Don José’s jealous anger and Escamillo’s bemused taunting.  During the fight, both men manage one strike against the other, leaving them with a draw that Escamillo looks forward to resuming.  After flirting a moment with Carmen, Escamillo leaves.  Micaëla and entourage return; this time she is gray and haggard, her wedding dress yellow and ripped. She has come to ask Don José to return to his village to visit his dying mother. He refuses. In one of the genuinely original ideas, Dante then creates a moving bed and turns Micaëla into lover, fiancée, mother, sister, the eternal, patient, saintly good woman always disappointed by man.  But Dante takes it a step too far in making Micaëla / mother die on stage, removing the reason for Don José to leave the smugglers—it would have made more sense for him to help the now decrepit Micaëla home to die.  Oh, well.  In any case, he follows the body down the mountains as Escamillo heads up the mountains, singing his Toreador anthem.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Act IV

We are in the village and waiting for the bullfighting to begin.  The village people are all in white with red accents (subtly is not one of Dante’s great strengths) and bits and pieces of body parts (wax legs, arms, lungs, kidneys, heads and hearts) are being sold as offerings. The celebration of the bullfighting entwines with the celebration of mass, symbolized by the huge thurible that is set swinging toward the audience at the start of the act.  Priests crawl forward piously; matadors crawl forward brazenly.  The disembodied Christ from Act III reappears in the various bits and pieces of humanity hanging on the wall as offerings to the bull ring.  Religion is spectacle and spectacle becomes religion to the mindless who celebrate death.

Escamillo arrives with Carmen, who now dresses in black just like the furies who chase her. Escamillo has an extra arm dangling from his vest; he unhooks it and adds it to the wall of body parts.  Religion is now nothing more than superstition.

Carmen is warned that Don José is in the crowd. Everyone heads into the ring except Carmen, who waits for Don José. They fight.  He wants her back.  She has moved on.  He tries to rape her.  She resists.  She pulls out her knife and offers it to him.  He takes it but backs off—he isn’t a murderer.  She throws his ring at him and turns her back on him.  That is too much:  he slices her throat and staggers back.  But with Dante, it is not enough to let the story play out:  she inundates the stage with people in what turns into a funeral procession for Carmen, who is carried behind the hearse on the back of the five furies. Don José, himself covered with blood and in shock from his action, lies forgotten on the side of the stage.  Even at the end, we are denied the chance to experience real, raw emotions by a director who apparently doesn’t believe we are capable of it.

Before we go, we want to highlight two statements made by Director Dante in her program notes: 

“It’s every lover’s wish to kill his or her lover.”

“She…pushes the knife into her belly like a final, sensational penetration…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gripping Carmen with José Cura and Elina Garanca in La Scala, Milan

 

 

Report from Zsuzsanna Suba

 

28th March 2015

 

Emma Dante’s Carmen production was premiered in La Scala, in 2009 and she harvested many attacks for her vision. After some years of absence, the renewed run of her production owned an exciting, new cast this spring. Seeing José Cura’s charismatic Don José together with Elina Garanca’s Carmen was the main motivation for me to take my first trip to La Scala in Milan and this gave the opportunity to wave to the lovely Dolomites and Trento too. It required a careful and timely organization with great question marks. The performance of 28th March welcomed a sold-out house and I had a good view of the stage from the second balcony. Fortunately every element of this trip contributed well to meet with a wonderful experience.

 

In my opinion, it was an amazing and unusual production from Emma Dante. I can understand a certain level of frustration from the audience or critics, because some work was needed on the recipient side to understand and absorb the concept and many ideas of the production. However critics tried to use the usual clichés of easy journalism and their existing formal prejudices about the production or protagonists to misjudge the recent Carmen performances. There was a total contradiction between what I experienced live in La Scala (on 28th March) and what I read in the official reviews about this spring run. It is much easier to refuse something and write about it negatively than to accept new approaches and real fulfilments even if it would surprise you. So if you were ready to absorb new influences, the reward was enchanting thanks to the vocal and acting quality and commitment of the leading trio.

 

The actor-singers, Elina Garanca (Carmen), José Cura (Don José) and Elena Mosuc (Micaela) fully transmitted and utilized the merits and creative contents of Emma Dantes’s production and created a wonderful dramatic music theatre through the whole night. They subordinated themselves to the director’s imagination and they did a huge and creative job in this context bringing the essential mysticism, passion and vitality to the scenes. They acted and sang wonderfully together adding great emotional honesty and involvement to the drama. The final applause lasted for more than nine minutes, though at that moment I felt, that the protagonists would deserve even more celebration, it speaks well about the success of the performance.

 

It wasn’t just the enjoyment of beautiful music and voices, but we experienced stunning, high voltage theatre as well! By the end of the opera we became familiar with the strange figures or props (priest, altar boys, nuns, procession, cross, children, etc.) which escorted the main protagonists, except Don José who remained lonely throughout the drama. Their secret dreams or the symbols of their characteristic living environment were projected on the stage in the form of beautiful, often surreal or grotesque pictures or scenes. These were associated mainly to the direct, visual messages or motivations of the characters, including freedom or bound, carefree love of life or loneliness, danger or tradition, predestined fate or death using some distorted symbols of Catholic religion too. These added elements were somehow questionable, vulgar or sarcastic, sometimes really poetic, but inevitable it gave dynamism and more layers to the story – at least to think about it. Somehow we noticed a desire for uncontrolled and particular female domination in the story too. However I always felt an ironic wink with the director. I admit that I didn’t understand everything about the director’s purposes, but I found her tools refreshing and entertaining. So I fully enjoyed it except the delineation of an exaggerated and barbaric, violent fight among the gipsy girls and soldiers.

 

The first Act was very strong indeed, we were entertained well by crowded, eventful, shocking or fiery scenes: the changing of the guard with violent children who acted strangely, the marching and flower bathing of factory girls, the big entrance of Carmen with flirting and provocative dance and attractive, flexible voice in Elina Garanca’ first, well placed and choreographed solo (Habanera). In the latter, most spectacular scene I enjoyed the men’s foolish, gaping or wondering, different reactions depending on whether they belonged to the villagers or soldiers. Only José Cura’s Don José remained stiff and unaffected even so when Carmen’s flower was thrown to his chest.

 

One of my favourite parts of this opera is the Micaela-Don José duet and I’ve got everything what I wanted in the following scene. The visual concept was strange but touching at the same time. During most of the time of the duet (“Parle-moi de ma mère!”), Don José and Micaela stood quite far away from each other on the stage. They sang out their own thoughts or dreams independently, not really caring about the other, rarely seen friend; there was no physical touch or kiss between them. José Cura stood in the rear end of the stage and conjured an incredible melting, haunting tenor voice as he remembered to the passing memories of his homeland. He wasn’t looking at Micaela, he turned his whole body away from her facing toward the audience and sang his words with sweet-tempered, smiling face. He showed a beautiful sense for the line of music and integrity of his feelings. Elena Mosuc’s Micaela did the same in the centre, front position, her strong and sheer and vibrant soprano sounded quite determined and confident to delineate her vision and desire of arranging her marriage with Don José in the village. Her modest, black dress was suddenly changed to an ornate white wedding dress, but her dream was locked forever in the cage of her huge, white bridal veil, which was thrown to her head by the priest standing behind her. Though they got closer to each other by the end of the duet, Don José’s hesitating hand for a closer touch indicated his decision about the future. The projection and realization of this long duet, especially José Cura’s appealing singing style reminded me to the imitation of a dreamlike, frozen, never ending moment, as if time would stop until the sweet melody of the beautiful duet finished. I longed for listening to it more, but after the applause, the story continued.

 

The next lovable scene came with Carmen’s second great solo (Seguidilla) when she was left on the stage as a prisoner guarded by Don José with a long rope. Garanca’s proud and tricky Carmen played with the rope and used it masterfully together with her creamy, caressing voice, body language and forced body contact as the weapons of her irresistible seduction to capture her man and make him her accomplice. Overcoming his initial, strong and cool resistance and rejection, José soon got involved in this game with exploding carnal pleasure not hiding his intoxication of love any longer. José Cura increasingly filled his unrestrained, soft vocalism with impatient passion. It beautifully boasted about his first declaration of love and they sealed it with a hot kiss of great position. Then we saw their clever and sudden action including Carmen’s escape and Don José’s punishment. They deserved the applause after the duet and at the end of the first act.

 

The second act was even more torrid and you didn’t want to miss any single moment on the stage. Carmen and her gipsy companion appeared now in the underground tavern (!) of Lillas Pastia, where joy of life and danger were equally present. With Carmen’s leading voice and dancing power, their mad, fresh and dynamic song (“Les tringles ..”) stirred the atmosphere of the stage. Even Escamillo (sang by Vito Priante) managed to perform his big entrance (Votre toast ..”) effectively with the help of the choir and orchestra too as he marched through the long table of the tavern. Though his pale and dry baritone was less attractive than I would expect for a great show, he was a good actor and was able to delineate the essential features of the character for which Carmen would tempted later. The brave execution of the ensuing quintet also contributed with a nice stamp and great impact to the show.

 

Then we were enchanted by all the three phases of the exciting and wonderful, long encounter of Carmen and Don José during their big solos and duet. The arrangement was again strange but exotic. Carmen, our host invited Don José to an orgy of food, candles and young gipsy girls and then she pampered him exclusively with erotic dance and seductive song (“Lalalala ”). José enthusiastically admired his woman sitting on the ground and then lying on his back, he was still under Carmen’s influence when he heard the first sound of the trumpet from the distance. As Carmen’s solo progressed you could observe how much our Corporal started to feel her anger and watched her mad determination for more engagement desperately. His hesitation soon changed into a more and more decisive action to leave the plot. Their voices blended beautifully together expressing the contrast between Carmen’s dangerous, selfish mood and José’s heartfelt and impassioned words about his duty and love.

 

Then Carmen turned her back on him injured and we had the pleasure to take delight in our tenor’s balmy and open-hearted solo. José Cura addressed his Flower Song to his woman’s refusing back unmoved, kneeling on his heel. Only the audience could see his remorseful, pleading face and the growing passion and love in his eyes while he sang the lines with sincerity and disarming artistic arch. The song was the poetry itself giving all his soul in the closing, free high note at the end. Loud bravo shouts and short applause granted him for this wonderful achievement. Carmen’s first shy reaction didn’t prevent her to continue her cruel behaviour in their finishing dramatic quarrel. Though they engaged each other in a long kiss, a moment later José pulled himself out from her embrace nervously and took an angry and impetuous farewell from Carmen. It was a nice moment when Zuniga’s arrival stopped the action and the lovers tried to hide the obvious signs of their previous, passionate meeting. In the next exciting fight of the two men Zuniga was defeated and it was clear that José had no other choice than joining to the smugglers with shining, triumphant voice on Carmen’s side. This was Don José’s last, happy moment in the opera. Great applause granted them again.

 

I think it was the director’s intension that we didn’t see and witness that great, overwhelming love scene between Carmen and Don José in this second act. Perhaps she wanted to demonstrate Carmen’s hectic, impulsive view of life, that in one moment she gives everything to his man, while in the other moment she deprives him off her love. The latter was more pronounced in the third act, where not only Carmen, but the whole camp hated Don José. It was a memorable scene when Elina Garanca turned Carmen’s game with the cards into a really frightening, dramatic scene with her unique performance seeing and accepting her fate and death. Parallel to this, the smugglers’ camp which appeared as a camouflage of living human-trees before, was transformed into a bleak cemetery by a touching vision when little, oblique crosses grew up from each lying figure.

 

I also greatly enjoyed the manly duet and fight between Don José and Escamillo which was displayed in an unusual mood and in a very convincing way by the singers. It revealed Don José’s dark side, his blind instinct and quick-tempered, aggressive nature. Escamillo’s tall and elegant figure was the winner of their fight in both physical and moral sense. He managed to elude his body from his rival’s attack and knife, he even could kill Don José, but he left him alive with a small wound and thus he humbled him with his skilful and shameless tactic during the duel. Our Don José was quite ungrateful with him when he tried to attack the toreador unexpectedly, from behind his back. This action was unfair and it highlighted his uncontrollable and dangerous temper.

 

Micaela’s arrival and her applauded airy solo conquered us not only because of Elena Mosuc’s splendid vocalism. But it coupled with a gripping visual effect as suddenly her white shawl was transformed into a large, white blanket and her young but gray-haired girl became Don José’s mother lying behind it in her deathbed. This also gave the strength and power to José to threaten Carmen to death with his darkest voice and violence and to return home with Micaela. We produced huge applause at the end of this act.

 

In the beginning of the fourth act I liked the colourful procession of toreadors and picadors, their imaginative, rhythmic knee-dance. The last, long duet of Carmen and Don José (“C'est toi!- C'est moi!”) again represented one of the highpoints of the evening, a real tense and dense drama with the help of the main protagonists’ distinctive and colourful vocal acting. The surrounding environment and props of this scene already indicated the tragic outcome of their final encounter. José Cura’s performance was simply breath-taking here in his pure fragility and then in his equally raw brutality. His initial, beautifully projected, heart rending, pleading words to his woman carried mildness, love, great passion and intensity. It touched the whole audience in the theatre, except Elina Garanca’s Carmen, though he even threw himself on his knees in front of her. Carmen rejected him with growingly evolved coldness and wild determination seeking her death according to the prophecy of the cards. This cruel behaviour enraged Don José so much that he attacked her violently while we’ve heard and seen his furious, dark vocal and vulgar actions when he tried to rape her twice. At the second attempt lying on the ground, Carmen managed to pull out José’s knife and offered it to him to kill her. It surprised José so much, that he sobered for a moment and let Carmen to escape. But when Carmen threw his ring away in the next moment, he was shocked and humiliated to such an extent that he sliced her throat from behind with a quick, unpredictable movement and the drama finished.

 

Then the audience happily offered a long celebration with intense applause and bravi toward the stage for almost ten minutes greeting all the protagonists, the choir, orchestra and conductor (Massimo Zanetti) for this nice evening. We were also very fortunate to meet José Cura and other friends backstage where he generously let us harvesting great souvenirs and a gentle talk in the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Updated:  Saturday, July 04, 2015  © Copyright: Kira