Calixto Bieito has a reputation as one of opera’s “bad boys” but there is nothing particularly shocking about his production of Carmen filmed at Barcelona’s Liceu in 2011. The action is updated to maybe the 1970s (there’s a phone box and a camera that uses film) and there are lots of cars on stage. For Bieito, this is a story of people living on the margins where sex is a commodity that women use as a trade currency and where violence, especially toward women, is endemic. It’s enough to disturb, as this piece did its original audience, without being gratuitous.
Bieito also strips the work down to essentials. In the opening scene, only the soldiers are on stage and the children’s chorus is made up entirely of girls. Entertaining soldiers for food is their first lesson in the dynamics of this sexual economy, a point that is reinforced by the silent character of a young girl throughout who is obviously being “groomed” by Mercedes and Frasquita. There is real menace and sexual tension throughout. Micaëla’s interaction with the soldiers is quite intense and both Zuniga and the smugglers appear to threaten Carmen with a belting. The final scene is the most graphic version I have seen. It’s all very well constructed with careful Personenregie and strikingly visual crowd scenes. Whether one likes or approves Bieito’s work there is no denying his mastery of his craft. He also plays to his Catalan audience by making multiple odd uses of the Spanish national flag!
There are some really stunning performances here. Every time I’ve seen Béatrice Uria-Monzon I’ve had the thought that she was born to play Carmen. I was right. She’s stunning, hitting just the right mood in every scene. The scene where she is berating Don José for wanting to return to the barracks rather than stay with her is stunning. For that I’ll forgive a little bit of a wobble in her upper register. Marina Poplavskaya too gives a very committed performance as Micaëla which more than compensates for minor vocal flaws. Then there is Roberto Alagna’s Don José. He is superb in every respect. I’ve never heard him sing better and his acting is on a par with the ladies. Erwin Schrott rounds out a superb quartet of soloists. The supporting parts are well done too and the orchestra and chorus, including the children, are excellent. Marc Piollet conducts and gives an exciting, taut, at times thrilling, reading of the score.
The video direction is by Pietro d’Agostino and it’s not bad. He uses plenty of shots with a sort of dress circle view of the crowd scenes which display Bieito’s ability to paint a picture on stage very well. It also shows how well drilled this chorus is. There are lots of closeups too and there are times in the busier scenes where one would wish to have seen more, especially in Act 2. Picture and sound quality (DTS Master Audio with LPCM option) are superb on Blu-ray. The DTS track is detailed, precise and very immediate. There are no extras. Subtitle options are French, English, German, Spanish, Catalan, Korean and Chinese. The booklet contains a short essay, a timed track listing and a synopsis.