Updating rarely makes such a seamless case for itself as in this modern Calixto Bieito production of Carmen. Amid the sexual confusion of the early 1970s, the famous seductive Habanera could just as easily express disgusted exasperation at love’s trappings. Carmen’s steely sense of liberty could be less about youthful sexual freedom than a middle-aged last chance for happiness. The question is if such viewpoints can be comparably compelling on stage and, in this DVD, on screen. And the answer is yes, thanks to a cast that are able to convincingly live their roles on stage, even if the singing isn’t all it could be.
As the hippie-ish Micaëla arrives in Act 1 snapping pictures of the soldiers, one immediately discovers that it’s an unusually cruel culture. A penalised soldier running laps around the regiment collapses in exhaustion. The children’s chorus are girl beggars, one of whom is held back by a soldier in ways that make you fear the worst, only to have him stick a cigarette in her mouth and send her on her way.
The 40-something Carmen isn’t especially beautiful, seems to live on the margins of society but is an old hand at using sex to get to where she wants to be, which ends up being the wrong place at the wrong time. She is coerced forcibly into joining her gypsy friends in their smuggling operation. Discarding Don José for the bullfighter Escamillo seems to be her exit strategy from her life, but not much of one. As magnetic as he is, Escamillo is costumed in ways that resemble pop singer Dean Martin, and isn’t nearly as cool as he thinks he is.
Much male flesh is seen along the way, especially during the Act 3 entr’acte, when a dancer strips off all of his clothes. Though Act 3 gets a bit cluttered with onstage automobiles – this band of gypsies stays on the move – the production’s overall look is spare, even barren, which plays well on video. And unlike so many directors, Bieito knows when to let the opera carry any given scene. I only parted company with the giant bull silhouette that dominates the Act 3 horizon, clashing with the production’s overall sense of realism.
Though Béatrice Uria-Monzon isn’t out to be the world’s most alluring Carmen, the fast and wide vibrato that made her voice so distinctive in her 1994 recording for Naïve is more pronounced now, throwing a smokescreen over some of Bizet’s famous melodies. Roberto Alagna has always had a certain Mad Max side to his temperament that, combined with his Italianate lyric tenor, has made him one of the best Don Josés in the business. As Escamillo, Erwin Schrott uses his oily characterisation as an excuse for a lot of mannered, even slipshod singing. Maybe that plays OK in the theatre but, on camera, you wish that the normally effective conductor Marc Piollet would rein him in. I also wish Marina Poplavskaya were a cleaner-voiced Micaëla, but as the most beautiful woman in the production, you won’t forget her between her first- and third-act appearances. Though the best traditional video remains the Metropolitan Opera’s Richard Eyre production with Elı¯na Garanca, this one is a bracing, convincing alternative.