Another Carmen? Well, yes, but there is a slightly different slant to this new production for the Rome Opera Ballet because Jiří Bubeníček has used Prosper Mérimée’s novella as his starting point, not Bizet’s opera. The ballet does, however, use Bizet’s music for the main part, which instantly removes originality from the score. Apart from a few interventions with musicians onstage — a piece for guitar and flute by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, some traditional flamenco with guitar, and a piano piece by Albéniz arranged for guitar — the only departures from Bizet in the pit were a little of de Falla’s ballets The Three-Cornered Hat and El amor brujo. They were used principally to accompany a scene from the novella which was not in Bizet’s opera, and maybe for good reason as it adds little and slows down the action. The scene is quite bizarre, as it recounts Don José going to Gibraltar disguised as an orange seller to look for Carmen and he finds her in the house of an English General. The significant moment — which is not in the same scene in the novella anyway — is when one of the gypsies, El Remendado, is wounded during an escape and Carmen’s husband, Garcia (again from the Mérimée), finishes him off with a pistol shot as taking him with them would slow them down. Don José is horrified at the cold-bloodedness of it.
However, the timing and focus of this scene are typical of several significant events in Bubeníček’s choreography. Often the audience’s eye isn’t drawn to the right place on stage to observe a critical plot point, and at times the action is so quick that the dramatic possibilities are lost. Remendado’s death comes during a very busy stage picture and we lose its significance yet for Don José it is fundamental because it is by this action that he realises the ruthlessness of Garcia and it leads to him killing Garcia soon after and momentarily winning back Carmen. The lack of focus on stage also happens during the long, complicated fight among the women in the cigar factory, when it is easy to miss the moment Carmen cuts an X into a fellow workers forehead, yet vital to explain the aggressivity that follows. Another moment comes when Don José kills his Lieutenant. Bubeníček has them fighting with martial arts sticks for some reason (in the novella he kills the Lieutenant with a sword), in fact, it’s the standard weapon throughout the ballet except for the dagger in the closing moments and rifles in the Englishman’s house. Don’t ask me why; I couldn’t work it out. The ‘kill’ comes in the form of crushing the Lieutenant’s neck between crossed sticks, but aside from the fact that he seems to be doing it to himself (to avoid eliminating too many dancers during the run I assume), it happens in a fraction of a second — it would hardly have left a bruise.
Another annoyance was the ‘pantomime’ horse. There are two operators inside, and Bubeníček says that he was inspired by the marionettes in Prague, though it seems more likely that he was taken with the London’s National Theatre’s production of the play War Horse — in fact there is a gallop scene which is almost identical. In the novella there are horses, so it seems like a fun idea. However, as this horse remains onstage a good while, it’s not a just a prop but a character… a two-dimensional one. Instead of a stylised horse, as in War Horse, it is more like a marionette, so Bubeníček wants it to be a believable horse in a context where everything else is real, whereas a marionette horse would be surrounded by other marionettes. The woman sitting next to me chuckled every time the horse came on, and indeed the effect was sometimes comical even if the two men who worked it were very talented. When the horse places its muzzle on a downcast Don José’s shoulder, it was a cheap, clichéd moment that should have been avoided.
Maybe it’s unkind to start with so many negative aspects, but they were all the more irritating because there were several good ideas in this Carmen and it could have been so much better with a more rigorous and theatrical approach to the storytelling. It was, for example, a nice touch to have Prosper Mérimée on stage, observing and noting the story. This is how it happens in his novella as he meets Carmen and Don José and writes of these experiences. The fact that he looks like a bank manager is unfortunate. But we see the scene with Mérimée meeting Carmen when she manages to steal his gold watch (another blink and you’ve missed it moment) which is a useful prologue to the story. The ballet also begins with Don José recounting his story from prison before he is hanged for murder. We see him swing as the ballet bursts into life and the final scene returns to the hanging. Framing the entire action is a wandering accordion player, presumably giving it that French Mérimée/Bizet touch, playing a couple of Bizet’s opera’s themes. The flavour is good, but it seemed inadequate and added on, much like the horse — a possibly decent idea but half-baked.
The bullring sequence is well done. Half-naked toreros with their cloaks make the ring, with Carmen and Lucas (not Escamillo here, and as he’s a picador he duly arrives on a horse… ‘that’ horse) in the centre. Their actions are half that of bull and bullfighter and half that of a couple flirting with dangerous sex, and projected above them is a horrific stylised video of a dying bull.
The set design, with occasional projections, is one of the highlights of the production. Gianni Carluccio’s semi-realistic sets sometimes hover above the dancers — just suggesting not being — and are elegant, functional and emotionally symbolic. The massive walls hanging above Don José are an oppressive reminder of how his story will finish and the weight of his moral dilemma. For the most part, Anna Biagiotti’s beautifully made costumes are very attractive, though the occasional tourist-postcard look, which I imagine was intentional, made some costumes appear cheap.
Bubeníček doesn’t have a distinctive choreographic stamp, and sequences occasionally become repetitive, such as Carmen continually being tossed around like a juggler’s club, but they sure all get opportunities to dance. He gives the company lots of movement, such as the cigar makers dancing over, around and under their workbenches, and the bandits leaping around during their various fight sequences, and it shows that the company in Rome is in excellent shape, but for the most part it is the pas de deux and solos that are the most memorable.
Susanna Salvi as Carmen was dancing with former New York City Ballet principal dancer Amar Ramasar. She didn’t allow him to steal the show, which is to her credit, as Ramasar is impressively charismatic, a fine actor, and moves beautifully contrasting his noble line with more modern contortions, most notably during his Flower Song solo which Bubeníček has constructed with loving care. He has a twinkle in his eye, style in his body and warmth in his heart. Salvi has a lot of spark and was fiery without being hand-on-the-hips ordinary as often happens on the opera stage. She has a personality that hits you between the eyes and was never obviously trying to be sexy unless she was deliberately teasing. It was clear why Don José was smitten by her and the chemistry between Salvi and Ramasar was winning. Alessio Rezza looked suitably arrogant as the picador Lucas, cutting a fine figure in his spectacular traje de luces costume and Gaetan Vermeulen as Garcia was seedy and mean and no tears were shed onstage or off when he was killed.
A second cast saw principal dancer Rebecca Bianchi paired with Giacomo Castellana. Castellana was a substitute for an injured Claudio Cocino who was to have alternated with Ramasar, and he played just two matinée performances, leaving Ramasar all the evening shows. He was inadequate and it was evident that he wasn’t secure with the choreography or the characterisation — the touching detail seen with Ramasar was lost. He also had an annoyingly inappropriate tattoo on the back of his neck which glistened brightly. Bianchi was sensibly cautious in his arms — some of the lift sequences were complex — and became another when she was dancing without him, full of verve and danced with technical ease.
Notable in the smaller roles were Loïck Pireaux as the Lieutenant and Giuseppe Depalo as the faintly ridiculous Englishman.
It is evident that a lot of money has been lavished on this production and much of it works very well indeed, and it would be a criminal act to allow it to disappear after this run. To approach the levels of the Roland Petit or Mats Ek versions, however, it needs some judicious pacing cuts, clearer storytelling and less generic choreography before its next outing.