Few classical pieces have crossed over into the mainstream as successfully as Bizet's Carmen. There isn't a baby boomer alive who doesn't know either the "Habanera" or "The Toreador Song" from the seminal opera, thanks in part to Phil Silvers, his character famed Broadway producer Harold Hecuba, and the cast of Gilligan's Island. During one memorable bit of stranded castaway sitcom madness, the survivors of the S.S. Minnow put on a musical version of Hamlet, hoping to inspire their visiting dignitary. Instead, Hecuba watches their satiric take on the Bard (including music lifted from Carmen and Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman) and then leaves the atoll, stealing the idea for himself. Or maybe your remember a crudely fashioned Bart Simpson singing the substitute elementary schoolyard lyrics to "Toreador" ("Toreador/ Don't spit on the floor-a/ Use a cuspidor-a/ That's what it's for-a"). Of course, neither circumstance takes away from the composition's combination of passion and pain. The latest Blu-ray version by the noted Gran Teatre del Liceu proves just how powerful a sparse staging of same can truly be.
In this update, Carmen is a prostitute (or, at the very least, sex for sale is inferred) while Micaela is a hippy with a camera. The references to bullfighting and military service are downplayed, while Jose and Escamillo represent the standard male dichotomy (good guy, bad boy) within a more timely circumstance. The plot is still the same, as are the emotions and the arias.
Additionally, Bieito found to amazing voices to fill his leading roles. As Don Jose, the doomed suitor subjected to Carmen's carnal contempt, Robert Alagna is excellent. His solid tone take us through the veiled bravado of the character, as well as a his fatal fascination with our haughty harlot. As Carmen, French chanteuse Beatrice Uria Monzon is stunning. She makes it very clear that our lead loves her sexual allure and can't wait to use said wiles on whomever will provide her comfort. During the second act, there is some unusually graphic simulated sex that proves this out. In addition, Bieito appears to be pitting Carmen against her captor Jose. It's a ballsy battle of wills which ends up destroying them both. On the other end of the spectrum, the ancillary roles are less successful. As Escamillo, Erwin Schrott delivers. As for Micaela, Marina Poplavskaya's performance is uneven at best. Perhaps she decided that this version of the character should be awkward and meek. Her vocal work sure is.
As for the new staging and sets, Bieito deserves praise, and a bit of criticism. Going skeletal is never going to win over the traditionalist, and it's clear that this director doesn't care about such complaints. He is hoping, somehow, that the combination of actors, singers, surreal pre-act capering (there's even a stripper moment before one Act) will capture the sensual essence of his vision. Indeed, this is one of the most fiery Carmen's ever staged, a whirlwind of passions contained only by the unique space Bieito creates. The lack of any real reference points - no baroque backdrop or slogan-laden posters - provides a real departure, allowing the acting and the singing to take true center stage. Of course, this is one director who can't leave well enough alone, and some of the choices are downright surreal. Still, Bizet's muse shines through, providing a powerful and provocative experience. This may not be your grandparent's Carmen - and in some ways, that's a very good thing indeed.