Uria-Monzon, Poplavskaya; Alagna, Schrott; Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of Gran Teatre del Liceu, Piollet.
Production: Bieito. C Major 707404 (Blu-ray) or 707308 (2 DVDs), 156 mins., subtitled
Fear not Calixto Bieito! Scandalous though some of his work may have been, there's little to offend (and very little sex or nudity) in this 2010 Barcelona performance, the most excitingly directed Carmen I've seen. Energy is one of its characteristics — energy from the stage animals in the four main roles and energy from the Liceu choristers, whose Act IV outburst needs no parade of visible banderilleros, picadors, etc. It's a triumph of theater and people over pageantry. Focus is another hallmark of this show, for Bieito strips Carmen of its usual settings and distracting clichés (flamenco, red dress, mantillas, bullfight rituals) and stages the entire drama in a circle of light vaguely evoking a bullring. Social commentary is a third, for Bieito updates the action and shows the plight of women and girls oppressed by poverty and by the culture of machismo in post-Franco Spain. (The staging uses the current flag of Spain, adopted in 1978, and cars and clothes suggest a setting circa 1980, when Spain was in an economic slump, but some of the smuggled items weren't invented until later.)
Act I is ruled by elite Spanish Legion soldiers, who force a prisoner of color to run laps till he drops. Naïve Micaela thinks she fits in by wearing colorful "Gypsy" clothes in Andalusia but stands out with her blond ponytail and tourist's camera. The chorus of urchins is made up of girls only, who hold soup bowls for the soldiers to fill: dependence on men starts early. In Acts II and III, a girl of nine-going-on-nineteen tags after Carmen and friends. No role models they: Frasquita's must-please-men anxiety has led to alcoholism; Mercédès unwillingly pleasures Moralès; the smugglers kick Zuniga to death. Act III sports an Osborne bull, ubiquitous symbol of Spain, and seven (smuggled?) cars. Into Act IV bops a bikini-clad Barbie doll of a sunbather who uses the flag of Spain as a towel.
Béatrice Uria-Monzon's Carmen is not a figure of myth, neither sex symbol nor liberated woman, but rather a plainly dressed real woman with nice legs and magnetic attraction who is struggling to survive. Acting Carmen, Uria-Monzon is right up there with Julia Migenes-Johnson and Maria Ewing; vocally and linguistically, she beats them both. Emerging from a phone booth, she begins with an unremarkable habanera but is in strong voice from the seguidilla on. Knowing her fate does not prevent this Carmen from being terrified of Don José, which makes her more human and the final scene more moving. Roberto Alagna as José is in great voice throughout. He is lyrical in the duet with Micaela and in the flower song (where I wish he sang the ascent to B-flat softly, as marked), passionate and focused in the finales of the last two acts.
Marina Poplavskaya's upper register is unattractive and sounds unsupported, but her Micaela is one tough cookie, with unprecedented strength of character. Erwin Schrott's suave, self-effacing Escamillo snorts like a bull and varies tone color to parody both Spanish machismo and himself. No one in the supporting cast is poor or outstanding. The Liceu chorus is terrific.
Paris-born Marc Piollet conducts vividly, without one slow or overly fast tempo. Dialogue, rather than recitatives, is used, but far more dialogue is cut than kept, so this is as tight a Carmen as you'll find. It's also an ideal Carmen for those who have seen many.