BiZET Carmen (Carignani)
In a brief interview included as a bonus, the designer Es Devlin talks of the challenges of creating a set for Bregenz Festival’s unique lake stage. It’s closer to producing public art, she notes, and the most successful designs there have been those that have taken the spectator into the realms of the surreal. And certainly what she produces for Kasper Holten’s staging of Carmen is striking: cards tossed into the air by a pair of vast hands extending out of the water, those that have already tumbled down offering the playing area for singers dwarfed by the scale of it all.
In his interview, Holten says he’s keen to steer clear of the Spanish clichés on the one hand, and to examine Carmen as a real person on the other. This he does by giving a little prehistory in the Act 1 prelude: we see Carmen as a young girl learning the power of her kisses to procure what she wants. It’s no earth-shattering insight but it does form the basis for a central performance from Gäelle Arquez that is unusually three-dimensional, occasionally communicating a touching remorse and reflection.
It helps, too, that the French mezzo is a striking, captivating performer, wrapping all and sundry around her little finger. She launches herself fearlessly into the lake to make her escape and even seems to relish the rain that starts to pour down at the beginning of the second act. (This film is an amalgam of the first two performances, and the run’s first night was almost rained off; there’s evidence of a stiff breeze blowing throughout.)
Any wider sense of characterisation, though, is severely undercut by the fact that there is barely any dialogue or recitative. A work that usually lasts nearer three hours is cut down to come in at around two and the whole thing at times feels more like a series of staged highlights: in the second act, for example, we rattle through the Chanson bohème, Toreador’s song, quintet and duo with barely time to catch breath.
There are a few attempts to spice things up with a bit of violence and raunchy choreography (some of it making use of the lake itself), and Holten finds a new murder weapon for the powerfully realised final scene. In Anja Vang Kragh’s appealingly eccentric costumes, Carmen starts off in unevenly rolled-up dungarees over her red dress; the factory girls look as though they’d rather be washing cars in a hip hop video. Ultimately, though, the drama offers little of the three-dimensional grandeur we get from the set.
And beyond Arquez the singing is hardly exceptional. Daniel Johansson’s Don José is a tad utilitarian of tone, Scott Hendricks’s Escamillo short on charm and vocal allure. Elena Tsallagova does what she can as a Micaëla who is given the standard mousy-frump treatment. Paolo Carignani conducts well enough, but, even with all the cuts, still sounds as though he’s in a rush to get back to the shelter of his hotel room.