Carmen at Bregenz

One has to recalibrate when reviewing productions from the lake stage at Bregenz.  The challenges for set designer and director are very different from designing/directing in a conventional theatre.  There’s an interview with Es Devlin on the disk of the 2017 production of Bizet’s Carmen that explains the issues very well but broadly it’s a question of creating a single, giant set that can be used throughout the opera and which makes a statement that integrates the work with the environment of the Bodensee.  The challenge for the director, as well, as the usual ones, is to communicate the characters and story when they are rather dwarfed by the setting.  S/he also has to figure out how to fit the lake itself into the story.  I think Devlin and director, Kasper Holten, manage this remarkably well.

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The set is framed by two enormous hands with, between them a pack of playing cards thrown in the air.  Among and beneath them are a higgledy piggledy series of platforms and surfaces, some of them partially submerged.  Projections are used to make specific cards appear as if they are being turned over.  At other moments the stage action is relayed on the cards as on a giant screen in a sports arena.  The lake is used a lot.  In Act 1 when Carmen breaks free of Don José she jumps in the lake and swims away.  Lots of dance action takes place in or near the water, often very soggily.  Escamillo arrive in Act 3 by boat and in the final scene Don José drowns Carmen and leaves her body floating face down in the water.  As if the lake doesn’t provide enough water there’s a spectacular downpour in Act 2.  At the time I was listening on wireless ‘phones and thought I was getting interference but it turns out that the hissing is the rain hammering down being picked up bt the mikes.

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The set and the water aside, Holten’s production is fairly conventional.  He’s playing a bit with the idea of “freedom” and Carmen’s obsession with being “free” which, I think, makes sense.  The setting might be 1940s Spain based on the assorted guns that appear but that doesn’t seem to matter much.  It’s pretty straightforward story telling.  There’s good use of dance to create spectacle.  The multi-level set is used intelligently.  It’s also quite heavily cut.  The piece comes in at just under two hours which means that maybe 30-40 minutes has been chopped.  Most of the dialogue is gone and one or two scenes do seem a bit abrupt but all the good stuff, pretty much, is there.  I think it works on its own and Bregenz’ terms.

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Any Carmen needs a really good leading lady and this one has one.  Gaëlle Arquez has pretty much everything going for her; mediterranean good looks, a smoky mezzo voice and utter fearlessness.  The things she does in this production are astonishing and I hope there was a really good safety crew on hand!  I don’t think Daniel Johansson’s Don José is quite in the same class.  He’s a good actor but there’s something a bit goaty about his voice that jarred.  It was most noticeable at the start and he seems to get better but he’s not Alagna or Kaufmann.  Scott Hendricks though is a suitably swaggering Escamillo with a very solid baritone.  And finally there’s Elena Tsallagova’s Micaëlla.  I’ve seen a lot of her this year and she has consistently impressed.  She does here too, not least when singing her first Act 3 aria from a terrifying height above the lake.  The rest of the cast gets the job done efficiently enough.  Paolo Carignani conducts a red blooded account of the score which makes sense.  Subtlety is not going to work here. The Wiener Symphoniker and assorted choirs all sound fine and there’s some really good dance from quite a large group of dancers.

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Felix Breisach directs the film and it’s an extremely bold piece of video directing.  This is the antithesis of the monkey cam close ups of the Met broadcasts.  A really good example is the opening of Act 3 where Micaëlla is perched right up on one of the hands.  There’s a lot going on the face of the cards and Breisach chooses to show us the whole set, even though Micaëlla is just a miniature spec (she’s about the size of the thumbnail on the hand).  Rather than do quick cuts back and forth he very, very slowly closes in on the singer without changing the shot angle at all.  The shot seems to last several minutes. It’s more Ingmar Bergman than Peter Jackson!  There are close ups of course but one never loses the monumental flavour of the set.  I love it!

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That said, one needs exceptional picture quality to get away with such an approach and fortunately the Blu-ray release provides it.  I can imagine that on DVD some scenes are just a hot mess and it also probably needs to be seen on a decent sized screen.  Sound quality matches the video.  The DTS-HD MA surround sound is only just short of spectacular and the stereo track is decent too.  It’s a top notch technical effort.

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There are, as alluded to earlier, interviews on the disk as extras.  Holten and Devlin get about six or seven minutes each and are lucid.  There’s also a time lapse video of the set construction process.  The booklet contains an essay, synopsis and track listing.  Subtitle options are English, German, French, Spanish, Korean and Japanese.

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There are a surprisingly large number of good Blu-ray recordings of Carmen to suit just about every taste.  I don’t want to compare them with this one because it’s entirely different.  The setting is unique and it is quite heavily cut.  It stands on its own and is worth seeing both to see how Devlin and Holten  cope with the opportunities and constraints of the lake stage and for Arquez’ really sexy Carmen.

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The screen caps are too small to do full justice to the picture so I’m providing a link to a gallery of full size (1720×1080) versions.

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