“Paulus’ Carmen is at once a powerful psychological drama and a testament to women’s universal struggle for freedom.”

by | Jul 1, 2024 | Featured, Reviews

As directed by the Tony award-winning Diane Paulus, Glyndebourne’s first production of Carmen in over two decades packs a punch musically and dramatically.

Starring Tunisian-Canadian mezzo soprano Rihab Chaieb as Carmen and Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov as Don José, Bizet’s classic is reimagined as a drama of domestic abuse and masculine military oppression. Set in a contemporary war zone/dystopian landscape, the gypsy smugglers are transformed into the marginalized masses, dealing with omnipresent authoritarian violence and control.

As the curtain opens on the impressive set designed by Riccardo Hernández, the soldiers dressed in fatigues and berets, harassing local passersby and leering at cigarette girls confined to metal cages, suggest a variety of settings. As Micaela (winningly played by Sofia Fomina) wanders in dressed in a Red Cross uniform to look for Don José, she could be anywhere from the Mexican-American border to the Gaza Strip.  As the plucky children’s chorus play at being soldiers and fall down dead, phantom frontlines are conjured. When the cigarette girls simultaneously tear off their headscarves in an act of defiance against the soldiers, the Iranian Women’s Life Freedom movement is suddenly summoned. 

Although Paulus says in the programme’s director interview that she was inspired by “repeated references to freedom attached to women whose lives are in danger and under threat” she also notes that “We are not zeroing in on any particular political situation or country.”

Rather she was “interested in evoking a modern day setting where we really feel the clash of a group of people who are disenfranchised against a male dominated military.” 

Against this backdrop, Chaieb’s Carmen becomes a woman fighting against both an abusive lover and tyranny in general. 

In her capable hands, Carmen is both beguiling and belligerent, seductive and self-reliant and her fate at the hands of her spurned lover the result of her final act of empowered defiance. Her skilled use of props like rope and soldiers’ batons that she steals from them and then taunts them with becomes a rodeo of sexualized parry and thrust, with Carmen remaining in full control, even as they try to subdue her.  Chaieb’s vocal prowess matches her acting skills. Her warm middle range exudes emotion and her high notes are sinewy and smooth.

Photo Credit: © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Don José’s propensity for both violence (the line about his past as a gambler who killed a man and had to flee his hometown to join the army is played to full effect) and inner torment are also emphasized. Instead of merely joining the gypsy outlaws at Lillas Pastia’s – transformed into a sleazy strip club/ bar – he slits his captain Zuniga’s (well played by bass-baritone Dingle Yandell) throat. As Carmen lifts her hand in celebration of “la liberté” Chaieb deftly conveys the character’s pyrrhic victory; she has convinced her lover to stay – but wonders if she could be his next victim.

The set for the Third Act in the mountain pass, with gypsies camped outside in tents and what appears to be a giant oil well, evokes migrants hoping to sneak past borders. Here Fomina shines as Micaela, conveying both innocence and authority with her soprano shifting from crystalline to steely as she prays for protection as she urges Don José to return home to see his dying mother. Here too, Canadian Elisabeth Boudreault as Frasquita is a vocal powerhouse whose soaring soprano belies her petite frame.

Glyndebourne’s music director Robin Ticciati – celebrating his 10 th  year in the role – and conducting Carmen for the first time, brings out the best in the London Philharmonic Orchestra marking its 60th  year as the resident symphony orchestra in the festival’s 90th  year.

But it’s the fourth act that outdoes them all. Gorgeous choreography features sylphlike topless youths in black trousers dancing with lanky ladies in red, and a motorized bull’s head mounted on a unicycle suggest both the bullfight and the battles of the sexes. Dmitry Cheblykov’s Escamillo brings both gravitas and self-deprecating humour to the role of the toreador who wins Carmen’s love by accepting her need for freedom; while Popov’s Don José dressed in a cheap suit holding a bouquet of flowers like a concealed romantic weapon behind his back exudes the creepiness of a failed used car salesman on the make.

When he finally strangles her with his tie in an act of desperate phallic revenge, it’s not the soldiers that appear to take him away, but a little girl. “You can arrest me now,” he tells her, with the look of a haunted man-boy begging for absolution. 

Paulus’ Carmen is at once a powerful psychological drama and a testament to women’s universal struggle for freedom. In the end, she achieves the goal she cites in her director’s interview that in Carmen’s death, “we feel her life force.”

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Hadani Ditmars

Hadani Ditmars has reviewed opera for the London Independent, the National Post and the Huffington Post. She is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone, a critically acclaimed book that documented pre and post invasion culture in Iraq, and is at work on a new book using ancient sites as a narrative device to tell the story of contemporary culture in Iraq. She is developing a libretto based on her experiences in Iraq.

She has been writing about arts and culture internationally for three decades and her work has been published in the New York Times, The Guardian, The San Francisco Chronicle, Haaretz and the Globe and Mail and broadcast on CBC, BBC and RTE.



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