A superb ‘Carmen’
A last-minute change of singer for the title-role of the opera Carmen by Bizet at the Aurora Theatre in Gozo brought in mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Rather than a drawback this might have been the best thing that could have happened to this production for it is difficult to imagine a better Carmen than Volkova. This singer has it all: she has a beautiful well-trained expressive voice that she can modulate at will, she has spirit and she can act.
The opera, with its excellent libretto by Meilhac and Halevy, has elements of the realism that had just come into fashion at the time of its composition. But underneath this realism is an archtypal ambivalence. The protagonist possesses at the same time both seductiveness and destructiveness. She is dangerous to any man, but she is also dangerous to herself. She steals the first scene with her taunting Habanera. At this point of the story Don José thinks himself immune, but he is nevertheless disturbed enough to take her for a witch. By Act II he is thoroughly besotted and compromised and his only refuge is in the mountains with the gypsy band. In a hauntingly beautiful and tense scene that concludes the act the cards foretell Carmen’s death and she, with a quite genuine selfknowledge accepts it as somehow built into the very structure of her character. From this point onwards the audience accepts her in the knowledge that she cannot help herself. Her greatness lies in her willingness to be Carmen. For this reason I did not quite agree with the artistic director’s decision to make her wear black for her final scene rather than the traditional bright colours, more often than not red. Carmen is no tragic heroine: she dies free and unvanquished. The real tragedy is Don José’s who finds himself alone bereft of all that he had held dear – career, love and family and even his own dignity to the point of becoming a murderer. José’s tragedy was emphasised in the production by having the finale played on a bare stage with just Don José mourning his own fate over the lifeless body of Carmen.
Unlike the other major charcters in the opera, Carmen has no scene to herself: she shares all her major scenes with other characters and with the chorus. This Carmen, however needed no show-stopper in that sense. Although the principals in this production were strong they stood little chance next to her and without in any way trying to upstage any of them she outshone them all. Only in the beautiful quintet in Act II was there a feeling of real cohesion between the singers. Soprano Madina Karbeli as Frasquita, mezzo Lara Rotil as Mercédès, tenor Eduardo Santamaria Alvarez es El Dancaire and baritone Gabriele Ribis as El Remendado played and sang beautifully off one another and off Volkova.
Tenor Roberto de Biasio as Don José after some weakness in the opening scene sang with his fine lyrical voice and gave a strong performance with a particularly beautifully moulded flower aria in Act II showing the vocal potential of this singer.
Baritone Marcin Bronikowki, in the role of Escamillo, was no romantic Spanish bull-fighter. In spite of his being made to mount a kind of stage upon the stage his entrance in Act II made no impact. His singing was good but he remained a rather shadowy character. More impressive, though in a less important role, was soprano Giuliana Gianfaldoni, in the part of the faithful Micäela, Carmen’s opposite number, one of the persons that Don José has lost and behind whom looms in the opera, the magentic influence of José’s mother.
Artistic director Novella Tabili has once again succeeded in incorporating innovative elements within the more traditional staging so beloved of our audiences. Screens with thematic painted elements – such as the beautiful Picasso bull of the first act − introduced the action of each of the four acts while the short dance sequences that accompanied the introductory music picked the mood of the respective acts. By the beginning of the third act, however, this ploy started to become gimmicky and felt rather out of place at the beginning of the fourth act. In Act IV describing the parade that preceded the bull-fight rather than presenting it in full colour economised on space and eliminated unnecessary panoply while preparing us for the isolation of Don José at the end. The chorus, which was in no way outstanding, particularly in the male section, tended to be kept static leaving the action in the hands of the principals and the extras.
Conductor Colin Attard was in good control of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra capturing from the very outset the various moods of the opera. The opening music had a spirit that reflected the enthusiasm of the conductor for all he directs. This is an opera in which the orchestral score is as important as the vocal score with moments when it is the voices that seem to be accompanying the orchestra rather than the other way round. One could not but note the beautiful playing of the flute and the harp (Rebecca hall and Brit Arend) at the beginning of Act III and by the closing act the orchestral temperature was high though not unfeelingly so – this was not the hard and glaring intensity of a Spanish sun and a Spanish bullfight. As the artistic director pointed out in her note in the printed programme that accompanied the production the setting is a spiritual location rather than a geographical one – this is Spain as imagined by a 19th century Frenchman.
This was indeed one of the most enjoyable opera productions to date.
Photo: Pix by P