Carmen, a fiery, seductive, uncontrollable man-eating harpy who tears through men (and women) without flinching -- it's easy work to categorize one of opera's most colorful & irresistible archetypes. So when GM of La Scala, Stephane Lissner, announced Scala's new season and brought 40-something Sicilian newcomer to opera direction, Emma Dante, to open their 2009/10 season with a new production of Bizet's Carmen, no one was quite sure what to expect. Punk opera? Revolution in the air? A big meh?
In the months leading-up to Dante's new Carmen, it was set forth that Dante -- a headstrong, counter-culture figure -- would propose a fresh, innovative, young version of Georges Bizet's tragic heroine. Dante is viewed as a sort of Diablo Cody of independent, off-Broadway Italian experimental & regional theater, and Scala could use her to try and make themselves look less lame.
But what we saw on opening night from Dante's Carmen was a convoluted direction without any really new ideas, declawed by Daniel Barenboim in its more radical choices (that had been artfully leaked to the press over the months preceding la prima) safely following Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy's idiosyncratic libretto (in Robert Didion's critical edition loaded with cuts). Which is fine.
But really, it's in bad form to hype a new production by an independent director as something that it most certainly is not. This isn't about attracting young people... actually, Opera Chic, almost always the youngest person in the room, found this new production as the most alienating of the recent la primas of the recent past: Patrice Chéreau's Tristan Und Isolde and Stéphane Braunschweig's Don Carlos included.
Without the sexy spark of the irresistible heroine and without chemistry between Carmen and Escamillo or Don Jose, this was indeed your grandparent's opera (with tons of Catholic imagery thrown in for good measure), as traditional and unimaginative as Peduzzi's conventional (albeit excellent) sets, leads weighted-down with matronly and static blocking, an absence of Bizet's fiery tenderness that was treated instead with a cold, jaded, hardened, bitter Carmen, punctuated by misogynistic tinges and violence everywhere.
Georges Bizet's four-act opéra comique premiered in Paris in March 1875, and Barenboim fittingly gave it a French, highly appropriate reading -- an enlightened, respectful, liberal tourist in the land of bullfights. Sloooooooooooooow as molasses at certain points, and tempi sloooooooooooooooowed down to gentle lulls. Dressed almost casually without a trace of tie or bow tie, the conductor led the orchestra on an un-rushed ride that overall, sustained itself well, best example being an overture that began as a ringing, pompous arch that showed much depth and foreshadowing.
The curtain opened with the humming of three white fans and although it's been told by preview that Dante's vision was more Morocco than Seville, OC wasn't convinced. The courtyard outside of the tobacco factory was full of activity -- carpet beaters and a full-on pregnant woman in the throes of labor (??). Scenographer Richard "Italian Churches Don't Look Like That" Peduzzi's solid brick facades towered in the background, although with Dominique Bruguière's somber, minimal lighting, one more or less had to imagine Peduzzi's sets.
We find Micaëla's Adriana Damato at the beginning of Act I, and OC is duly pleased that she's not in some frumpy, bucolic dress and rather wrapped in a rich, black coat. Oops! Nevermind! Micaëla strips the jacket and reveals she's been swathed in a lace abomination. A fach too far, Damato is an excellent singer with the wrong voice for this role, but Micaëla never made the marks, and the singer, transparently set-up in the image of Dante herself (with Halloweeny white streaks in her dark hair), was lightly booed at the curtain call.
Moralès's Mathias Hausmann showed great range and engaging emotion, playing a sort of effeminate and sympathetic brigadier, swagger and predatory vibes stripped away, completely nonthreatening -- the one aberration in Dante's cruel world of violence and indifferent men.
And here comes Dante's promised symbolism: As the cigarette girls emptied from the factory, they wore black robes over their undergarments, while white cloths worn on the head were dual nun habits and towels. As they bathed, they writhed around each other, clearly all of them lesbians (we have the same convention at Lilla Pastia's Act II bar with all that egregious rubbing).
Writing was a main theme of the tragic female condition for Dante, and we saw a lot of it during Act I's climactic girl fight. Instead of throwing punches, girls in white slips pulled each other's hair, holding tight and writhing in pain for the remainder of the act. Blocking was boring and erratic, some girls freaking out like cats in heat, other sitting still but just contorting their mouths. Even OC, who's all about feminism and equality, was appalled by such myopic, dated symbolism. Dante's concepts of feminism and female submission are so woefully outdated that she's probably still burning her bra* (actually, at a very 1960s stab at feminism, we couldn't help notice the braless dancers all over the stage. Budget cuts, perhaps?)
* Bra-burning never really happened, not even back then -- it's an urban legend, like Vietnam vets getting spit on by pacifists, but this is a topic for another post.
The end of Act II's La liberté had the cigarette girls on the ground, baring their legs, portrayed as snarling, growling animals. WTF? Seriously? So Dante sees women as bisexual whores who are unable to control their animalistic urges, freely kicked around the stage by soldiers's boots and dragged off the stage by their hair. Tenuous symbolism goes even further with the presence of crosses and clergy that haunt the backgrounds of almost each act, wearily knocking away at derivatives.
Budget choice Anita Rachvelishvili, three student productions under her belt, a name barely uttered before her Carmen debut and a recent graduate of Scala's own Accademia, had a solid stage presence, anchoring, earthbound & frankly, earthy. A voice without sparkle or much expression or nuance, instead we had a deep, solid mezzo. Rachvelishvili worked a paltry handful of expressions throughout the range of her role, and the lack of passion left a giant void in the narrative. Whirling one's hair around and grabbing at your skirt doesn't make you sexy, and Rachvelishvili lacked charisma and the free spirit of Carmen's flirtations. Sadly enough, it wasn't until her curtain call that we saw her emote more than she had the entire evening while singing Carmen.
Jonas Kaufmann as Don José was the star of the evening, which isn't saying much when stacked-up to his colleagues. Although recovering from a cold that axed him from Thursday night's Scala Under 30 preview performance, his Act II La fleur que tu m’avais jetéegarnered hearty, spontaneous applause for its beauty and emotion, one of the only applause mid-act of the evening. Chemistry damned, OC's convinced that the applause after Près des remparts de Sévillewas a way to break the awkwardness of Kaufmann's sterile kiss with Rachvelishvili. A clean-shaven Kaufmann (face & chest included) actually made the entire cast (namely the cigarette girls) look dirtier and hairier by comparison -- and when that's the case, there's a big problem.
Erwin Schrott's Escamillo was a letdown. His voice was tired, and he lacked a palpable stage presence. We wanted more, but he took a subordinate role in his acting and singing. Act IV opened with the only memorable touch, a gigantic incense holder that was swung from the heavens, the only moment of dynamic movement or novelty in the entire opera.
And yes, we did have Escamillo's rubber hand, along with a very awkward rape attempt -- a half-a$$ed leftover of Barenboim's trimming of Dante's more unsettling (for the Scala audience) ideas.
In a libretto and composition that is so synced between the artists, it's amazing how very wrong Dante got the action -- too many moments anticlimactic thrusts on stage. We understand that all of her ~big ideas~ were smacked down by Barenboim and Lissner, so we're actually seeing a lean, cleaned-up version of Dante's ideas. Which is exactly what's so worrying. We're guessing Dante poured so much into her gimmicks, third arms, and doppelgangers that she never properly focused on the foundation or architecture of the staging, and it showed. Nothing new here, nothing edgy, provocative or refreshing. Just a lot of misplaced misogyny, and a reading of feminist ideals that are so datedly-entrenched in the Guerrilla Girls movement of the mid 1980s. Emma Dante apparently didn’t get the memo that the women's liberation has evolved past flashing ones panties as an act of defiance.
All in all we feel bad for Dante, a women who has the same dated ideas on feminism as a woman twice her age, way past the generation gap -- who lives in a world of threat, violence, and misogyny. A director who sees a very cool, awesome, vibrant story as a way to bring out the worst qualities in a person -- everything ugly and earthbound. You hire an amateur and no matter how hard you try to polish it, in the end it's still the work of an amateur.
Rightfully so, Emma Dante was booed along with the rest of the production crew at the end of the evening. Barenboim didn’t give a crap, and came out on the stage after the curtains had been closed with Dante, who looked like she was about to cry. Which would have been fitting, although better they’re tears of joy for such an amateur to swindle Scala into paying her big bucks for something so painfully off the mark. Here we have a woman in her 40s who has never before directed an opera in her career and bragged that she had never set foot inside la Scala. We're inclined to think that before Scala invited her, she had never actually seen an opera either.