Wednesday, October 24

Considering "Carmen"

It was not my original intention to see George Bizet's "Carmen" last Saturday. At first, my plan had been for an evening of Argentine Tango, my first opportunity since arriving in Germany. However, a lack of healthy women that would be around and the tendency of Tango Milongas to attract surprisingly high numbers of men and my own shyness, forced me to alter my plans. It was by good fortune then that coming back on the U-Bahn from an attempt to convince a friend to come, I met another who was attending "Carmen" at one of Munich's several state theaters. Ultimately unable to find a dancing companion, I tagged along, dressed in my only pair of jeans and a pullover my sister gave me two years back. Yeah, I had better clothes, but considering the full suits the other men in the audience were packing, I would have just come off as a poser. As it was, my wardrobe for the evening could instead be considered 'alternative.'

Perhaps I should point out that this was my first opera. The closest I ever came to seeing one, in any medium, was "Ballad of Fallen Angels," fifth episode of Shinichiro Watanabe's brilliant Cowboy Bebop, when Faye finds a dead body in one of the box seats and "Ave Maria" plays in the background. And I am in a surprisingly perky mood to be getting so tangential so quickly this evening. Huh. You do not even yet know whether I liked it or not.

Well, I certainly did. Not the mind-blowing excitement that Fight Club or, more recently, Children of Men inspired in me, mind you, but keep in mind this is a new genre for me. It certainly could have done worse, say by pushing me away from all operas forever rather than making me excited for the next one.

In all honesty, it took me a while to get into it. Though all but the most iconic songs were translated into German from the original French and despite my limited skill in both, I was forced to rely on body language to get the least idea of what was happening. And as emotionally cutting as the singers complemented by the pit orchestra could be, much of that intensity is lost when you do not know why they feel that way. Fortunately, "Carmen" lasted over two and a half hours, and there was an intermission, during which I finally read the synopsis and learned what was happening. By the fourth and final act, I was engrossed in the way that once you come out of it, you realize that for the past half hour not a single thought has passed through your mind. It has been nothing but an extended visceral response to those on stage. Caught between "Les voici! Voici la quadrille! and C'est toi! C'est moi! that is something else. And since I discovered these recordings, allow me to link to L'amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habanera) as well. I know it is iconic and perhaps just a bit cliché, but I like it just the same.

It caught me off guard, the description of "Carmen" as a comic opera. I was fully prepared to laugh along with the audience at those high culture jokes that went right past me. I was not prepared for the murder that finished the play. And that made applauding for the principals and director (and applaud we did! I think they took at least three bows.) seem wrong. Richard Gere's character in Pretty Woman was right. The music is very powerful. For all this jealousy and terror and rage to just come out, and the audience applauding only minutes later did not feel right. At that point, it would have been more appropriate to just quietly shuffle out. Do Carmen and José even want to come out at that point?

There are two elements of this production, which, while integral to the performance, do not enjoy the same recognition as the singing and orchestral performance: the physical stage itself and the costuming. I fully admit I am provincial. Stupid things like traffic lights still possess the ability to both amuse and terrify me (depending on whether I am walking or driving), and this stage was far superior to any traffic light, unless the Japanese turned out something exceptional when I was not paying attention. Several of the acts required a second set, like the bedroom in Act II. While the live theater productions I have previously attended would have been content to divide the stage, this stage literally became an entirely new set. The floor could rise, a partition from the ceiling fall and two walls from the sides move in to literally create another, smaller stage without an interruption. Most impressively, the stands which the crowds stood upon for the final act, literally reversed direction. The highest parts of the stands in the back sank, while the lowest ones in front sank to create the impression that we were now sitting behind them rather in front. Cool seems like an inappropriate word to use in describing an opera, but that was.

Then there was the costuming, more precisely, the color. The picture that leads this post gives you an idea. Every act had a dominant color, blue for the first, red for the second, green for the third, and black for the final act, with Carmen's dress always anticipating the next, resorting to white in the end. The cast was no less than 40, and by all respects, this apparently gimmicky decision should have turned them into a blurry mass. Yet the rich array of shades and tones made it work and was a joy to look upon.

I mentioned it in passing earlier, but it bears repeating and does a fair job of summarizing my response to "Carmen." I want to see another opera.

1 comment:

Emmett said...

If I were to introduce anyone to Opera, it would be either through this one or through Mozart's Magic Flute. You don't need to understand what is going on with either of them, it is just a complete sensory overload, both sight and sound. Bizet really manages to capture the Spanish spirit with his music, doesn't he? There is a terrific arrangement of Carmen for violin solo that is one of the best violin concertos ever. Next time, if you can't find or are not interested in Mozart (Don Giovanni is also good), try something by Puccini, like Madama Butterfly (hey, you already know the story!) or La Boheme. If you've seen Rent, I guess you already know that story as well.