Carmen, the story of a free-willed woman killed by a possessive man, was staged for the first time in Paris in 1875 breaking away from the rigid confines of the opéra comique and ushering in a new way of doing opera. Unlike the pieces of the opéra comique, Carmen was not sentimental or moralising; it was true. It is perhaps because of its concern for human emotions that Carmen, notwithstanding the trappings of old-fashioned gender and stereotyping, survives to today.
Carmen is a foreign woman who does not want to be subjected to a man’s authority and is killed for it. It is uncannily topical, which is why this Welsh National Opera production is such a missed opportunity.
Directed by Jo Davies, the WNO Carmen does not bite nor does it feast in the exuberant music of Bizet. The colourful mural of the initial curtain opens to a grim brutalist scenario. Davies sets Carmen in a grey 1970s Brazilian favela stripping it of its colour, fun, and sensuality. Davies’ direction of the opera is equally puzzling. Carmen lacks intensity and defiance. She is more girl-next-door with little scenic presence. The sensuality of the opera is left to the couple dancing on stage mirroring Carmen, who effectively steal the show.
Last year, an Italian production of Carmen by Leo Muscato’s Maggio Musicale reinterpreted Carmen to stimulate discussion on violence against women and changed the ending of the opera with Carmen killing Don José instead of dying by his hand. https://www.sbs.com.au/language/english/legendary-opera-says-enough-to-violence-against-women-flips-gender-roles
In the WNO’s production, Carmen’s prompting to Don José to kill her is not an act of defiance, but of resignation.
The most radical production is that of Barrie Kosky who plays with gender codes notably dressing Carmen in men’s clothes with a nod to Marlene Dietrich. Kosky has Carmen sing the Habanera in an ape costume which she throws away.
The WNO should have made a better attempt at allowing Carmen to speak to our times. The French mezzo soprano Virginie Verrez plays Carmen with grace and accomplishment. Her singing is skilful but forgettable. In the role of Don José, Dimitri Pittas shows little emotional range, while Anita Watson, as Micaela is more impressive. Overall the performances are fine. What lifts the opera is the excellent chorus, in particular the children’s chorus, and Bizet’s bold music.