An enlarged, multi-layered Carmen by Oper im Steinbruch intrigues and frustrates

Oper im Steinbruch (Opera in the Quarry) presents an annual spectacular outdoor opera production in the historic St. Margarethen quarry near Eisenstadt in Austria. In 2019, the opera was Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and after a two-year gap, Oper im Steinbruch returned with Bizet’s Carmen, directed by Arnaud Bernard with sets designed by Alessandro Camera and costumes by Carla Ricotti. I caught the third performance of the production on 14 July 2023, conducted by Valerio Galli, when Francesca di Sauro was Carmen and Migran Agadzhanyan was Don Jose (both roles are triple cast) , with Vanessa Vasquez as Micaela, Vittorio Prato as Escamillo, Aleksandra Szmyd as Frasquita and Sofia Vinnik as Mercedes. The opera was presented in Ernest Guiraud’s edition with sung recitatives and the work was performed in French.

Carmen premiered, with spoken dialogue, in the relatively intimate confines of the Opera Comique in Paris, but before his death Bizet had signed a contract with the Hofoper in Vienna (now Vienna State Opera). So, he always knew that the work would need changing and expanding to fit the larger Vienna stage and to suit a cast of non-French speakers. The same process happened to Gounod’s Faust and Thomas’ Mignon; an opera premiered with dialogue in a smaller French theatre is expanded including sung recitatives for larger, grander theatres.

We can never know what Bizet might have done, but Guiraud’s recitatives are creditable, and the slowing of the dramatic pace is on a par with the larger scale and loss of dramatic intimacy. Moving the opera onto the huge stage at St. Margarethen (seven times the area of the Vienna State Opera!) means that the work needed expanding again.

Director Arnaud Bernard avoided the temptation to fill the stage with serried ranks of gypsies, toreadors and such. Instead, the staging was set around a film production: a film crew in the 1950s making a film with a story set in 1930s Civil War era Spain. Alessandro Camera’s set consisted of a series of five separate stages, each one able to be rotated, used separately and sometimes in parallel. There was a director figure and film crew, and the cast of the film were seen when not filming so that the leading singers moved in and out of their roles in Bizet’s opera. Thus, the opera’s interstitial moments, which are very important in Bizet, ceased to be about Carmen but about the film production.

Bernard’s approach was highly interventionist, Bizet’s scenes could be subdivided into even shorter ones and the opera became a series of focused moments rather than a dramatic whole. Many might enjoy this intriguing, multi-layered concept, but by Act Four, I was well weary of shouts of ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’ (in English) interrupting key musical moments, while I felt that tension was allowed to slack in some of Bizet’s extended numbers. So, the final scene between Carmen and Don Jose at the end of Act One was repeatedly stopped and re-set for the film, the singers reverting briefly to the 1950s actor roles rather than staying in character.

The stage setting did, however, take advantage of the temporary theatre’s scenic limitations, the set changes became part of the opera. And Bernard put the ability to play multiple scenes to creative use, telling extra stories. During Act Two, we saw Frasquita and Mercedes freeing Remendado and Dancairo from prison (in this 1930s updating the gypsies are Republicans fighting the Fascists). In Act Three we saw Micaela taking confession before bearding the Republicans in their camp.

The limitations of this fragmented approach were apparent in the presentation of the role of Don Jose in Act One. He is a strange character: there is no entrance aria, instead he enters during the change of guard (with its children’s chorus), has important dialogue with the lieutenant and a scene with Micaela. This establishes his character and its right place in the setting ready. When he becomes the focus of Carmen’s attention we are familiar with his presence.

Here, the change in guard scene was omitted (presumably because of the children, but I have seen it successfully done without), and the dialogue with the lieutenant and the scene with Micaela were presented in a different setting, a barracks interior far stage left. Thus, when Carmen made her entry in a setting middle stage right, Don Jose was not a well-established presence in that scene, the dramaturgy was undermined.

I would have happily lived with the production if Bernard had not fatally misjudged Act Four. This ceased to be about the bull fight, there were no large-scale crowd scenes, and the chorus was off-stage. Instead, we had a series of scenes about the preparation for the bull fight, along with one that made it clear that Don Jose was not a deserter but a Fascist plant amongst the Republicans. Now, I have no objection to this 1936-style reinvention of Carmen, but Bernard made the ending be about the Fascists rounding up and executing the Republicans. Don Jose and Carmen’s drama was almost incidental.

What made the performance work, for me, was the strength of the individual performances.

Francesca di Sauro was in many ways a traditional Carmen, sexy, flirty and independent. But she was vigorous and highly active, often trouser-clad, and there was an engaging freshness about her whole performance. Despite the huge stage and the fact that we were hearing her through a sound system, she drew and kept focus. Her sultriness came, in part, from the way she shaped and caressed the vocal lines, yet this Carmen was also quick-witted and sharp. It didn’t matter that we saw di Sauro slip in and out of the Carmen character, this was a vivid and highly musical performance. I would love to see her in the role again, in a far more intimate setting.

Migran Agadzhanyan seemed, at first, a rather stiff Don Jose. For the reasons mentioned above, he struggled to establish the character in Act One. His scene with Vanessa Vasquez’s Micaela was well done, but this Don Jose was stiff and proper. In the subsequent acts he got his chance and cracks started to appear. Agadzhanyan’s singing was robust and vigorous, as befitted the presentation of the character; this Don Jose was no dashing romantic hero. His Act Two scene with di Sauro’s Carmen was well done, rough-hewn bewilderment turning briefly into touching emotion, a dramatic tenor voice giving way briefly to lighter head voice. However, he never seemed quite on edge enough in Act Three though the posturing with Vittorio Prato’s Escamillo was well done. Not surprisingly, given the visual distractions and revised dramaturgy, in Act Four his Don Jose lacked the necessary sense of losing control, but the scene with di Sauro’s Carmen did develop its own power.

Where the two’s relationship fell rather flat was that despite a fine Act Three trio, di Sauro failed to sufficiently bring out Carmen’s essential fatalism whilst Agadzhanyan’s Don Jose was simply not obsessive or deranged enough, so the final moments lacked the ultimate tragedy.

Vanessa Vasquez was a poised Micaela. Perhaps more middle-class than envisaged by Bizet’s librettists, this Micaela was inexperienced but never naïve and drew and inner strength from her faith. Her big aria in Act Three was wonderfully done, but Vasquez whole performance in that act had a dramatic power to it.

Tall and striking-looking, Vittorio Prato made a fine Escamillo. He made light of the role’s vocal challenges (few baritones have both the necessary flexibility at the top and resonance at the bottom). Prato preened and postured wonderfully, everything you needed from an Escamillo and more. 

Aleksandra Szmyd and Sofia Vinnik made a highly active pairing as Frasquita and Mercedes, moving between the operetta-like ensembles of Act Two to the power of the Act Three trio. The sheer busy-ness of the production worked against them sometimes, but they were strong and vivid. Marco di Sapio and Angelo Pollak tried hard as Dancairo and Remendado. In a conventional production they would have gone down well, but here the characters rather lost focus.

Tall and with an imposing presence, it was always clear when Mikołaj Bońkowski’s Lieutenant Zuniga was on stage. Bońkowski projected the self-absorbed lieutenant admirably, making the most of his moments and keeping a sense of the underlying drama. Ivan Zinoviev provided fine support as Morales.

The chorus was highly active; whilst there might not have been any big production numbers, there was plenty of action. And these were a hard-working, all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting group. So much so, that I rather missed their physical presence during the opening of Act Four. The actors were hard worked too, as the stage was in constant motion with multiple groups moving around. This was a complex multi-layered production and it worked technically because of the hard work of everyone on stage.

Volker Werner’s sound design was admirable. The aural image of the orchestra left little to be desired in terms of sound-quality and placement, whilst the players clearly did far more than place the notes. The aural image for the singers was admirable too, with little or no disconnect between sound image and physical reality.

Ultimately, I think that Arnaud Bernard’s production became rather too much about the idea of making a film and the essential dramaturgy of Carmen was obscured. But thanks to Francesca di Sauro’s fresh, force-of-nature Carmen and Migran Agadzhanyan’s robust Don Jose, there was plenty to enjoy.

Robert Hugill

Georges Bizet: Carmen (recitatives by Ernest Guiraud)

Carmen – Francesca di Sauro, Don Jose – Migran Agadzhanyan, Micaela – Vanessa Vasquez, Escamillo – Vittorio Prato, Frasquita – Aleksandra Szmyd, Mercedes – Sofia Vinnik, Dancairo – Marco di Sapio, Remendado – Angelo Pollak, Zuniga – Mikołaj Bońkowski, Morales – Ivan Zinoviev; Director – Arnaud Bernard, Conductor – Valerio Galli, Set Designer – Alessandro Camera, Costume Designer – Carla Ricotti, Sound Designer – Volker Werner.

Oper im Steinbruch, St Margarethen, Austria; Friday 14th July 2023.