Vivid Passions: Carmen at the Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse

Bizet – Carmen

Carmen – Clémentine Margaine
Don José – Charles Castronovo
Micaëla – Anaïs Constans
Escamillo – Dimitry Ivashchenko
Frasquita – Charlotte Despaux
Mercédès – Marion Labègue
Moralès – Anas Seguin
Le Dancaïre – Olivier Grand
Remendado – Luca Lombardo
Zuniga – Christian Tréguier

Maitrise du Capitole, Chœur du Capitole, Orchestre national du Capitole / Andrea Molino.
Stage director – Jean-Louis Grinda

Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse, France.  Sunday, April 15th, 2018.

Today’s matinee of Carmen marked my first visit to the beautiful city of Toulouse and its exquisite Théâtre du Capitole.  An intimate venue with just over 1100 seats, it’s situated within the city hall buildings on the eponymous square.  The acoustic is bright and immediate, which meant that louder passages had overwhelming impact, while the softer passages meant that the singers could take more risks.  It’s also home to an outstanding orchestra and chorus.  This may well have been my first visit but I very much hope it won’t be the last.

The staging was the work of Jean-Louis Grinda – a name new to me.  On the back of the stage was written ‘Gran Corrida 1875’ and costumes (Rudy Sabounghi and Françoise Raybaud Pace) seemed redolent of that era.  Two semi-circular structures were used to vary the set – at times combined to represent a bullring, at others used to create more abstract settings.  The personenregie did consist of some parking of characters at opposite ends of the stage to sing at the audience instead of each other, but within that, the cast really did manage to create some magnetic and believable personalities.  This was a very rare example of a Carmen that was truly sung off the text.  Every word from every single cast member was absolutely clear throughout and, as a result, the drama crackled with energy.

Photo: © Patrice Nin

Another reason the drama was so vivid, was the smoking chemistry between Clémentine Margaine’s Carmen and Charles Castronovo’s Don José, culminating in a final scene of electrifying dynamism.  He, lovingly imploring for a second chance; she, proud and determined to keep her freedom.

There were a few non sequiturs.  Video (Gabriel Grinda) was inconsistent in use.  Occasionally, images of Carmen or José flashed up but were then almost instantly gone.  In Act 4, the corrida was projected onto the back wall.  It made for an interesting backdrop to the murder, but I’m not convinced it was actually necessary given how vivid the performances were.  Otherwise, there was the occasional outstretched hand from the gentlemen of the chorus, or for a few seconds, the ladies danced with their hands in the air – in both cases they felt like afterthoughts.  That said, the cigarette factory brawl was fantastically unhinged.  The evening opened with the sight of a dead Carmen on the floor.  Was the entire evening José’s flashback or something else?  I’m not sure we’ll ever quite know.

Of course, the Margaine/Castronovo pairing is familiar from Ole Anders Tandberg’s Berlin staging, seen in January this year, and this is clearly a pairing that works well.  It struck me that here, Margaine felt much freer than she did on the night of the premiere in Berlin.  There, I found her text good, but also felt that she could have made more of the words.  Today, she really caressed the words, using them to colour the tone – the way she shaded ‘même chanson, même refrain’ in the ‘chanson bohème’ was full of spirit.  Margaine has a killer chest voice and isn’t afraid to use it.  Her initial descent from A to D on ‘c’est certain’ was so warm, fruity and rich, it was enough to make me start questioning my sexual orientation.  The registers are absolutely integrated from juicy bottom to bright, penetrating top.  Her ‘séguedille’ had a captivating, almost feral wildness, oozing magnetic charisma – but always securely sung.  No wonder José fell for her.

Photo: © Patrice Nin

Castronovo once again gave us a José of astonishing psychological complexity.  The journey he took us on, from uptight solider, to ardent lover, to dangerous murderer was utterly compelling.  Castronovo made it clear that José had always had the killer in him and his tender imprecations to Carmen in the closing scene, always warmly vocalized, fully brought to life his desperation to avoid what deep down he always knew inevitable.  He gave us a flower song of such unbearable beauty, capped with a perfectly placed diminuendo on the high B-flat that seemed to make time stand still.  He has that rare ability, which few have, of being able to penetrate right to the core of an aria and today, he was completely heart breaking.  Castronovo is always aware of what his handsome, Italianate tenor can do.  The end of Act 3 found him with even fuller power, the high notes spinning marvellously but the tone never pushed.  A tremendous piece of singing and acting.

Anaïs Constans was a lovely Micaëla.  She sang her aria with crystalline tone, her soprano well placed and resonant, opening up generously on high.  Dimitry Ivashchenko coped well with Escamillo’s difficult tessitura – other than a little tightness on top.  The voice is large in size and he has stage presence to spare.  The remaining roles were cast from strength – all satisfyingly sung, something that happens all too rarely.  A special mention for Anas Seguin’s Moralès sung in an attractive and firm baritone.

Photo: © Patrice Nin

As mentioned at the top, the quality of the house forces was superb.  The chorus, big of sound with a really distinctive tone, the ladies especially with some deliciously fruity mezzos.  The extremely well-prepared children’s chorus also made their presence known.  Andrea Molino led a reading that had unmistakable rhythmic impetus, which meant that even the slower numbers (for instance, the Micaëla/José duet) felt convincing and never dragged.  The ‘habanera’ had irresistible swing, the ‘chanson bohème’ whipped up a storm.  That latter number was kicked off with earthy winds that had genuine personality.  The quality of the orchestral playing was exceptional.  Every section played like heroes – the warmth of the brass and accuracy of the strings gave much pleasure.

Today was one of those performances that made it seem as if one was hearing this extremely familiar work for the very first time.  It felt so fresh, so vivid, without any sense of going through the motions or routine.  The staging didn’t particularly offer any new insights but was fluently done and provided an appropriate framework for the especially fine cast to work its magic in.  This was a performance that really lived through the text, that brought that drama to life, and was exceptionally well sung and played.  Without doubt, a splendid afternoon in the theatre.

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