A flagpole, a telephone box, haze and the glare of a sun that implies relentless heat. Even before the overture is finished, we can see the line of soldiers, and the one man in pants and boots, running in futile circles with his gun till he drops from exhaustion.
This production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen is set in 1970s Spain, the final years of a military dictatorship, and in the borderlands of army camps, smugglers and migrants. It brings the picturesque gypsy world of 19th century French imagination up to date with street children, oversexed squaddies and ancient cars stuffed full of luxury goods being traded across borders by enterprising amateurs. It could be Franco’s Spain, or Eastern Europe as the Iron Curtain rusted and fell, or the frayed edges of the EU today. Director Calixto Bieito first staged this production in Spain in 1999, and despite its nods to Spanish political history, it hasn’t dated. The classic lines of the story are not cluttered, the performances and Ryan Wigglesworth’s conducting let the tunes shine and the orchestra carry us on the thrilling emotional ride.
So it’s not unduly relevant, but it is fierily sexy. The soldiers are all pent-up energy, posturing behind the factory girls with obscene gestures, but not daring to touch till the women signal permission. Carmen and Don José – Ruxandra Donose and Adam Diegel – are sparking from their first smouldering looks, with her prison escape almost a full-scale seduction. And Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Micaëla, despite her buttoned-up coat and religious underscoring, brings Don José a ‘mother’s kiss’ that would be very wrong from mother to son, and pushes for more. Llewellyn’s performance almost steals the night, as well as Don José, from Carmen herself.
Being on the fringes of society, the edge of town, living on the road, in your car and on your wits or what some would call your ‘sexual capital’ brings a certain kind of freedom. Carmen herself embodies this refusal to bow to constraint: She first sings of love as a bird, free and unfettered by laws or morals – the libretto, sadly, is hobbled by a clumsy translation that loses the poetry and fluency of the French.
When arrested, Carmen simply refuses to speak and sings instead, telling Don José and his officer that they can lock her up if they wish, but cannot force her to do anything against her will. This is her recurrent theme. You can imprison her, hurt her, kill her, but she will live and die free. Constrained as she is, like all her milieu, by poverty, sexual exploitation, military repression, she will not submit.
But at the same time, Carmen is a fatalist. In this production, Don José strikes her very early in their relationship, an angry fist after he’s undergone months of imprisonment for letting her escape. Instead of resisting, fighting back or leaving, she lies still, as if already dead. Later, when her friends playfully read their fortunes in the cards, and she sees death for herself, she is stricken, but accepts it as her destiny.
It’s a contradictory and human stance. It raises the question – if Carmen is a tragic heroine, what is her flaw – excessive freedom, or excessive refusal to exercise that freedom to escape her fate? When Bizet wrote the opera in 1875 the idea of individual freedom was a live, inflammatory one in France, and in Europe. But don’t look for a moral opposition here between free spirit Carmen and the repressive, violent military. Brave she may be, and honest to the point of suicide, but Carmen pursues only her own desires. In a gritty world of dirty tricks and teaching children to charm toreadors out of their cash, she’s as violent and selfish as the rest, sticking to her own moral code not for social good but for her own sense of who she is.
In the end, it’s just her and Don José in the circle of sand, under the sun. She seems determined that it can end only one way, the way opera heroines always end: with a tragic death and music that moves, exalts and thrills.
Till 9 December 2012