In the colourful streets of a colonial city, Carmen is a red hot spark.
She sings her siren song, and suddenly, Don José's world is alight with a volatile fire.
This vibrant production of Bizet's opera features gypsy girls and bullfighting boys in eye-popping colours. There are smugglers in suits, parades and punches, lust and loathing aplenty.
And underneath those irresistible Spanish tunes, the dark undercurrent of fate pulses. Carmen knows she is dancing with death.
John Bell's production is a bold look at the intense relationships at the heart of Bizet's famous opera. It hones in on the wild love that promises freedom, while binding the lovers in an unbreakable web of fate.
The ultimate femme fatale is here to stamp her feet, toss her hair and dance. Will she love Don José? Maybe. Will you fall for her sultry Habanera? Definitely.
|Set Designer||Michael Scott-Mitchell|
|Costume Designer||Teresa Negroponte|
|Lighting Designer||Trent Suidgeest|
|Fight Director||Nigel Poulton|
Running time: approximately 3 hours, including one interval.
Sung in French, with English and Simplified Chinese surtitles.
Small-town boy Don José is serving with the army far from home. His fellow soldiers are captivated by the strange allure of a gypsy woman, Carmen. He thinks only of home, his mother, and the pretty Micaëla, a young girl who comes to deliver a letter from home.
Carmen is intrigued by the shy Don José. Arrested for beginning a fight, Carmen seduces Don José to win her freedom — and convinces him to desert the army to join her in the gypsy life of liberty.
But her wandering eye has already found another lover: the dashing bullfighter, Escamillo. Don José's jealousy is fierce, Escamillo's passion is determined, Carmen’s fate is set in the cards…
Not afraid of spoilers? Read the full synopsis.
As a result of a quarrel, Don José has had to enlist in the army. His mother and Micaëla, who loves him and hopes to marry him, live in a village near the city.
In the square
While Moralès and his soldiers are chatting about the passers-by, Micaëla comes looking for Don José, a corporal. Moralès explains that Don José is in another company that will shortly take over the guard, but Micaëla decides not to wait. The new guard led by Zuniga arrives. Moralès tells Don José that Micaëla was asking for him.
The cigarette women come out of the factory for a break. Carmen attracts most of the attention, but she tells the men that she will love only someone who does not love her. She tosses a flower to Don José who, flustered by the gesture, quickly hides it. Micaëla returns with a letter to Don José from his mother in which she forgives him and asks him to return to marry Micaëla.
Uproar in the factory spills out into the square as Carmen and another woman quarrel. Carmen insolently refuses to answer Zuniga about the fight, so he orders her to be imprisoned. Don José is left to guard her, but she promises to love him if he helps her escape. Don José lets her go and is himself arrested.
Lillas Pastia's tavern
Carmen, Frasquita, Mercédès and the customers are dancing. The victorious torero Escamillo arrives with a crowd of admirers. He is drawn to Carmen but she shows no interest. The crowd and soldiers leave.
The smugglers Remendado and Dancairo try to enlist the help of Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès in some of their plans. Carmen refuses: she is in love and waiting for Don José. Incredulous and mocking, the men suggest she brings Don José with her.
Having been released from prison, Don José arrives and Carmen dances for him. When he responds to the summons back to barracks Carmen accuses him of not loving her. In answer, Don José describes how in prison he treasured the flower she threw at him. If he really loves her, Carmen says, he will desert the army and go with her to the mountains. Zuniga reappears to meet Carmen and he discourages Don José. They fight, but when Remendado and Dancairo disarm Zuniga, Don José decides to join the smugglers, leaving behind his former life.
The smugglers' depot
The smugglers rest while a safe route to Seville is reconnoitred. Don José is still obsessed with Carmen; she, however, is tired of him but senses that he may kill her if she leaves him.
Frasquita and Mercédès read their fortunes in the cards; when Carmen joins them she only turns up cards that foretell her death. Dancairo and Remendado return, and the women leave, enthusiastic at their task of distracting the customs officers who have been spotted on the smugglers' route. Don José is left to guard the contraband.
Micaëla comes alone looking for Don José. A shot frightens her and she hides; it was Don José firing at an intruder: Escamillo. Having heard that Carmen no longer loves her soldier, Escamillo has come after her. Enraged at this, Don José appears and challenges Escamillo to a fight. They are interrupted by Carmen herself. Escamillo invites the assembled company to his next bullfight in Seville and leaves. Still jealous, Don José threatens Carmen.
Micaëla emerges from hiding. She begs Don José to return to his mother, who is calling for him. Carmen urges him to go. He is suspicious of her motives for encouraging him, but when Micaëla reveals that his mother is dying and wants to forgive him, he agrees to return with her. Escamillo is heard in the distance.
Outside a bullring
A crowd has gathered to watch the procession before the bullfight. Escamillo is accompanied by Carmen. Her friends Frasquita and Mercédès warn her that Don José is in the crowd. She decides to wait and talk to him, but when they meet he pleads with her to go away with him. She will not, as she no longer loves him. As the crowd is heard cheering Escamillo's success at killing the bull, Carmen declares she now loves the torero and returns Don José's ring. He kills her.
Coming to Carmen as a theatre director, the thing I find most exciting about the opera (apart from the great story and fabulous music) is the accuracy and savagery of its psychology. Why do Carmen and Don José each choose the one person they know is going to prove fatal to them? And why do they remain locked in a relationship that can be resolved only by their violent deaths?
With Don José, it's a matter of infatuation. He is a naïve provincial boy whose only aim is to go home to mum and marry the girl next door. His meeting with Carmen strikes him, as he says, like a bullet in the chest: he is swept into erotic realms he never knew existed. His infatuation makes him Carmen's slave, but he quickly develops a possessiveness that seeks to contain her, and Carmen will not be contained.
Carmen is infatuated too. The moment she claps eyes on José, she is determined to have him. The reason? Because he is indifferent to her. She sees in José something good and decent; he's not like the others who are always hounding her. But she turns him into a fantasy figure of her imagination: she wants him to be bold and free — a romantic outlaw galloping his horse over mountains under an open sky. But that's not José — he just wants to hold down his job and obey the rules. Carmen is infatuated with her fantasy of José, not the man himself.
Maybe Carmen never actually loves anyone. Her infatuations, Escamillo tells us, only last six months. As soon as Escamillo turns up, Carmen develops a new infatuation — one based on glamour, celebrity and macho display.
Carmen is superstitious. She believes the cards when they tell her that she and José will die. But instead of running away, she confronts José with an ultimatum: 'Kill me or let me go — either way, I'll be free'. This all makes for a wonderfully dynamic relationship. Throw into the mix Micaëla, a sensible and devoted young woman endeavouring to save José from Carmen and from himself, and you have a powerful, poignant love story.
Carmen gives us a landscape in which gender stereotypes are the norm. To be a man you have to be a soldier, a gangster or a bull-fighter. If you're a woman who wants to fit into this landscape, you are expected to be sexually compliant and support the men in their projects. Carmen, José and Micaëla defy these stereotypes, and struggle to proclaim their individuality.
In choosing a setting for this Carmen, my design team and I have settled on somewhere resembling today's Havana. (I say 'resembling' because if you decide to be specific then you have to follow through in the detail, and that doesn't interest me; we're making an opera, not a travel documentary.)
The reasons for this choice are several. It is contemporary because I always feel more comfortable referencing people and places I know. I enjoy seeing the audience's shock of recognition and like the dramatic tension between a contemporary vision and an older text.
And why Havana? Partly a device to get away from the traditional setting with its flamenco dancers, gypsies and toreadors. Havana is still close enough in spirit, and feel, to Bizet's vision. It's hot, it's Spanish, it's sexy and right now seems to be flavour of the month — there is a buzz of excitement about its re-engagement with the international community after so many decades of isolation. This isolation has resulted in a slightly retro, out-of-touch image of Cuba. The romantic mythology surrounding Che and Castro still lingers in the public iconography and the magnificent crumbling Spanish architecture enhances a perception of Havana as a likely corrupt environment for the military and the underworld to rub shoulders with those involved in sporting rackets.
One of the most famous tunes in Carmen, the Habanera, is, as its name suggests, the music of Havana. Originating in Cuba in the 19th century, the music was brought back to Spain by sailors, and soon became a popular cabaret hit, danced by members of all levels of society. At first Bizet thought the tune he used in Carmen was a folk-song, but he discovered it was written by a Basque composer, Sebastian Iradier, who had died ten years earlier. Bizet added a note to the vocal score acknowledging its source.
Despite its popularity today, Bizet's work bombed at its 1875 première at the Opéra-Comique. The audience found its risqué plot too hot to handle. The critics denounced it as a failure, accusing it of being 'immoral and superficial'. 'What is really wrong with this Carmen is that there is not one good tune in it,' fumed one critic. The management gave away tickets to try to attract an audience.
Devastated by the failure, Bizet died of a heart attack three months later, aged just 36. Tragically, he never knew of the opera's eventual success.