The Inevitability of Fate: Carmen at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Bizet – Carmen

Carmen – Clémentine Margaine
Don José – Charles Castronovo
Micaëla – Heidi Stober
Escamillo – Markus Brück
Frasquita – Nicole Haslett
Mercédès – Jana Kurucová
Moralès – Philipp Jekal
Le Dancaïre – Dean Murphy
Remendado – Huang Ya-Chung
Zuniga – Tobias Kehrer

Kinderchor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Ivan Repušić.
Stage director – Ole Anders Tandberg.

Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, January 20th, 2018.

A role debut is always an exciting moment both for an artist and for a spectator.  The years of anticipation, of preparation, of finally revealing something to the public that had previously only been heard in the rehearsal room.  When it is also done in the context of a new production – that expectation is magnified.  Tonight marked the role debut of Charles Castronovo, a singer well established in the French repertoire, as Don José – one of opera’s most iconic roles.  Joined by an interesting cast, it was performed in this new staging by Ole Anders Tandberg.  Tandberg is a new name to me, but based on the evidence of this Carmen, I would certainly like to see more of his work.  His staging was given quite a hostile reception by the Deutsche Oper audience, but the comments overheard in the lobby afterwards were much more positive.  Whereas Dmitri Tcherniakov in Aix’s staging made the work very much Don José’s story, here Tandberg focuses on the Carmen-Don José dichotomy.  He illustrates José’s descent from quiet mommy’s boy, who doesn’t really fit into the world of the military, to dangerous murderer.  In so doing he brings out the inevitability of José’s fate.  José always had the murderer inside of him – he was ready to castrate Zuniga when he came knocking for Carmen at the end of Act 2.  So much of what Tandberg did was based in the text.  As José sang ‘jamais femme avant toi, aussi profondément n’avait troublé mon âme’, it was clear that this was very much José first experience of falling in love – thereby bringing out José’s journey with vital immediacy.  The constant presence of fate and its implications was made clear from the opening scene.  As soon as we hear the fate motif for the first time, Carmen appears, dressed in a flamenco dress with plumes of smoke from her cigarette rising to the air.

Photo: © Marcus Lieberenz

If there’s a downside to Tandberg’s staging it’s that, at times, it feels too self-consciously clever – the flamenco dresses for Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès in a way make it feel like a parody of a traditional staging.  Though, at the same time, the way the three entered at the start of Act 3 as flamenco Charlie’s Angels was actually quite memorable.  In fact, that was the strength of Tandberg’s staging, his ability to create memorable stage pictures and imagery – the plumes of smoke in the cigarette factory, the sight of the crowd waving handkerchiefs in the opening of Act 4, or Micaëla walking through dead bodies during her aria, seeing for herself the destruction that Carmen leaves in her wake.

Tandberg also made plentiful use of black humour – often phallic in nature.  In addition to the aforementioned castration, we saw Escamillo cutting off a bull’s balls and handing them to Carmen.  We also had the smugglers dressed as ghosts and the chanson bohème included soldiers dry humping a wall.  In doing so, Tandberg reinforced the work’s origin as an opéra comique.  Not all of his imagery felt completely understandable – there were a few moments in which I did wonder what on earth was going on.  Yet, this dark humour felt surprisingly at one with the work.  This was also a staging where the women were strong.  Micaëla, far from the shrinking violet we usually see, was almost raped by soldiers in the opening scene yet managed to fight them off with a light slap.  Carmen, was also a fiercely strong and independent woman, clearly the leader of her pack.

Photo: © Marcus Lieberenz

It was a challenging evening for the cast.  While the applause at the curtain call was unanimous for the singers, there was some disgraceful behaviour from members of the audience who booed the production while individuals were singing.  Surely these people must realize that their actions can have an effect on artists who are doing everything possible to bring a director’s vision to life?  Despite this, the cast gave completely of themselves all night, absolutely dedicated to Tandberg’s vision.  Clémentine Margaine was a splendid Carmen.  The voice is big, round and voluptuous.  From her very first entry, as she worked it across the stage, it was clear that she would be an exceptional Carmen.  She made plentiful use of a fabulously juicy chest register, and the beauty of tone was beguiling, always even in emission.  While her native pronunciation was a pleasure to hear, I do wish that she had done a little more with the text – used it colour the line more, rather than occasionally singing over it.  The card scene revealed a seemingly infinite depth of texture in her chest register.  Most impressive.  Margaine rose to a final scene of raw power, not only through her uninhibited physicality but also her daring descents through the registers.

That final scene also registered thanks to Castronovo’s concentrated, psychologically sophisticated evolution of his character.  His ‘il est temps encore’ to Carmen was a tender entreaty, making one believe that maybe there was a glimmer of happiness possible for Carmen and José.  Likewise, at the end of Act 3, his cries of ‘je te tiens’ were not those of a brutal bruiser, but the threats of a quiet man who when pushed would rise to the ultimate crime.  In his ‘la fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ he gave us some heart-breaking singing, his use of text and the way that he coloured the tone really brought out the flourish of first, obsessive love that José was experiencing.  He found so much tenderness and longing in that familiar number, in a way that I had never heard before.  Indeed, Castronovo’s use of vocal colouring was masterful – the high B-flat at the climax of the aria was bright and shimmering, then shaded down in a captivating diminuendo to a single thread of sound.  It was a privilege to see such an exciting role debut and I look forward to seeing Castronovo develop in the role as time goes on.

Photo: © Marcus Lieberenz

The remainder of the cast reflected the high standards of the house.  Heidi Stober was a very musical Micaëla, phrasing her music with love and affection.  The tone has a tendency to shallowness at the top and her diction is somewhat foggy but her easy line made for grateful listening.  Markus Brück’s Escamillo was initially somewhat rough – his big number sung with grainy, effortful tone – but the text was certainly clear.  The quality of the supporting roles was high, particularly Nicole Haslett’s Frasquita who I would certainly like to hear as Micaëla at some point.  Diction was good on the whole.  The chorus was excellent – warm tone, well blended and no ungrateful war of vibratos.  The children’s chorus was deliciously raucous and had excellent French.  Ensemble was solid but there were a few passing moments of stage parting company with pit, inevitable on a first night.

The intonation of the band was not always spot on, the strings at times quite raw in tuning.  We did get some characterful brass playing though.  Ivan Repušić’s conducting kicked the evening off with a loud, brash and very quick overture.  The almost total absence of dialogue meant that numbers followed each other in quick succession.  His conducting was always efficient and never drew undue attention to itself, although tension had a tendency to sag in places.

Photo: © Marcus Lieberenz

This was an evening that divided the public although, as I mentioned above, they clearly appreciated the singing.  I found Tandberg’s staging to be intelligent and fluent, true to the opéra comique origins of the work, full of scatological humour and that put the women front and centre where they belong.  Yet, we never lost sight of the fact that this is the story of two people – the tragedy of she who will not be tamed, and he, who was capable of love but doomed to violence.  We were given performances of astounding psychological depth from two outstanding singing actors.

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