A blond and modern Carmen returns to Paris opera
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French composer Georges Bizet’s masterpiece Carmen had been absent from Paris’s opera scene for a decade. It is back in the French capital through December 29, but with a modern twist that might strike the wrong note with some audiences.
It is almost 140 years old and one of the most performed operas of all time, but Georges Bizet’s signature opera Carmen continues to stir passions in Paris. After a 10-year absence from the French capital’s opera scene, the sultry gypsy is back under the direction of Yves Beaunesne.
All shows at the Opéra Bastille have been sold out in advance for the new Carmen, but a packed house may not be synonymous with popular acclaim this time around.
At the end of a dress rehearsal on December 1, the audience booed Beaunesne when he appeared on stage. This first, frigid reception had many wondering if Carmen’s new 1970s makeover had gone too far.
Back to the the ‘Movida’
Beaunesne has chosen to bring the action into the more recent past, to the years immediately following the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975 and the transition to democracy in Spain.
Indeed, the setting is the Movida, a time when Franco-era social mores were first challenged and whose spirit was best captured on the big screen by filmmaker Pedro Almodovar in such films as “Pepi, Luci, Bom” and “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”.
From Anna Caterina Antonacci’s (Carmen) bleach-blonde wig to the towering transsexual who parades in plastic breasts through musical numbers, the Almodovaran influence of this new incarnation is unmistakable. In the third act, in a preamble to the traditional bullfight, huge puppets and frolicking circus artists flood the massive stage.
“Almodovar speaks to me, especially because he has this exceptional love for women that is magnified through his films,” Beaunesne recently explained in an interview with Radio France International. “They are beautiful, strong and violent; they contain all the world’s qualities and defects. All the kinds of things we also find in Carmen.”
A rebellious bird
Carmen’s transformation does not end with her hair colour. The castanets and flamenco dress give way to low-cut black dresses, but perhaps more strikingly, an aloof and introspective personality.
According to Antonacci, who has played Carmen previously on other stages, the new Carmen’s penchant for contemplation posed some challenges. “It was not obvious at the beginning. This Carmen internalises her feelings and is not as radiant as we’ve seen her in the past.”
Indeed, Carmen’s traditional hit parade, including the songs "Love is a rebellious bird” and “Near the ramparts of Seville”, figure as intimate and even disturbing melodies.
Other characters are also treated to similar metamorphoses under Beaunesne’s direction. For example, the upstanding and even noble Escamillo (Ludovic Tézier) is swapped for a gaudy gambler in a white suit and gold chain.
Nevertheless, Carmen traditionalists looking for something reassuringly familiar can take solace in the precision of Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan, whose arrangements are faithful to Bizet’s original score and finely played by the orchestra.
Carmen is at the Paris National Opéra at Bastille, from December 4-29. For last-minute (standing-room only) tickets for €5, line up outside Opéra Bastille before showtimes. The opera can also be heard on France Musique radio on December 22 or in selected movie theatres on December 13.
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