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The Dancing Carmen of Extremadura

National Theatre
07/01/2019 -  & October 25, 29, November 8, December 1, 13, 2018, February 18, March 24, April 3, May 30, June 18, September 9, 23, November 27, 2019
Georges Bizet: Carmen
Katerina Hebelková*/Jana Kurucová/Jana Sýkorová (Carmen), Eduardo Aladrén/Peter Berger/Michal Lehotský*/Hector Lopez-Mendoza (Don José), Dana Buresová/Maria Kobielska*/Alzbětá Polácková (Micaëla), Martin Bárta/Roman Janál*/Svatopluk Sem (Escamillo), Marie Fajtová/Hana Jonásová*/Tereza Mátlová (Frasquita), Jana Horáková Levicová/Stanislava Jirků/Michaela Zajmi* (Mercédčs), Jaroslav Brezina/Vladimír Dolezal/Jirí Hruska* (Dancairo), Václav Lemberk*/Josef Moravec (Remendado), Ales Hendrych/Pavel Svingr*/Frantisek Zahradnícek (Zuniga), Lukás Barák*/Jirí Brückler/Jirí Hájek (Moralčs)
Kühnův dětský sbor, Jirí Chvála (chorus master), Sbor Národniho divadla, Pavel Vaněk (chorus master), Orchestr Národního divadla, Robert Jindra/Jakub Klecker/Zbyněk Müller* (conductor)
Jozef Bednárik (stage director), Vladimír Cáp, Ľudmila Várossová (costumes), Libor Vaculik (choreography)

For over a century, Carmen has been one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. Dramatically intense and with plenty of catchy music, it is hard not to want to hum along to the music of the Habanera or to dance to Seguidilla, the Toreador’s Song or the Chanson bohčme (“Les tringles des sistres tintaient”). Its melodies have inspired paraphrases for the piano (Horowitz), the violin (Pablo de Sarasate, Franz Waxman) and the guitar. Its ballabile (“danceable”) quality has inspired a successful ballet by the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, and flamenco ballets by the various dance companies.

Various films have been made based on Carmen, from the 1915 movie with Geraldine Farrar to Otto Preminger’s 1954 amazing Carmen Jones, a filmed version based on Oscar Hammerstein’s musical comedy, which captures the spirit of the work more than most opera productions. In 1984, Francesco Rossi’s opera film featuring Julia Migenes-Johnson entrenched the trend of Carmen as a voracious sexual creature. After the immense success of that film, it was hard to produce any Carmen with anything but a libidinous vamp as its heroine. Long forgotten were the Carmens of Teresa Berganza, Régine Crespin and Victoria de Los Angeles; not necessarily grandes dames, but certainly not whores. Carmen is a woman and a gypsy in a male-dominated society and epoch. She is a free-spirited woman who refuses to be bound by her station, sex or ethnicity. This is her appeal and it’s a credible one, even for the modest provincial soldier Don José. The Carmen-as-whore idea is flawed, for the provincial Don José, likely to desire such a woman, is most unlikely to fall madly in love with her. This has often been the unconvincing vision that most stage directors have chosen for the past 35 years. Jozef Bednárik’s vision in this Prague production is predictably that of Carmen the whore. Despite that psychologically flawed premise, this staging works marvelously, to a large extent thanks to the amazing Czech mezzo Katerina Hebelková. She is blessed with a beautiful voice, good technique and movie-star looks. Most importantly, she is a first rate actress. From the moment she set foot onstage, she was riveting. Moreover, she is a good dancer, which is important, as this staging is one in which dance plays a major part. This is understandable, given the danceable quality of Bizet’s score. Ballet dancers appear on stage during many scenes, especially those featuring music, inciting one to get up and join them. This is usually pleasant, sometimes marvelous and a few times distracting. The dancers were most welcome before and during Escamillo’s song, precisely because they distracted from Roman Janál’s sadly damaged voice. They were unwelcome during the habanera as they reduced the effectiveness of Carmen’s statement of seduction. Nonetheless, Hebelková managed to define her Carmen within the four-minute duration of her opening aria. There were various sets of dancers, but their presence was not always understood. Two transvestite men were among the sets of dancers, though their cross dressing seemed unrelated to the story. Perhaps they represented sublimated desire and a stylized view of femininity in the eyes of sexually frustrated men. Hebelková was especially effective in her phrasing. Her “Il est permis d’attendre, il est doux d’espérer” in Act II was incredibly sensual and her “Cette bague autrefois, tu me l’avais donnée, tiens!” in the final scene, brutal. Sexual frustration was one theme the stage director saw as relevant. The opening scene was in an all-male prison. While not in the libretto, it worked, provided one didn’t adhere too closely to the text.

Michal Lehotský as Don José was almost as wonderful as Hebelková’s Carmen. His is a lyric tenor, with all the heft needed for this dramatic role, and none of the baritonal quality favoured by many past Don Josés. His Flower Song was moving as well as technically flawless. He perfectly managed the pianissimo at the end of the aria. While upholding his virility, Lehotský managed to show his tenderness in his phrasing of “O Carmen, oui, te revoir!”, “j’étais une chose ŕ toi” and “Carmen, je t’aime.” Despite his dramatic flair and good looks, his ridiculous costume sadly reduced his stage presence. Supposedly a military uniform, José’s very long loosely fitting coat looked more like the gown worn by the novice priest Fernando in Donizetti’s La favorita. This hideous costume diminished some of Lehotský’s dramatic appeal. Fortunately, his voice beautifully compensated. Maria Kobielska as Micaëla was appropriately virginal but also somewhat dull. Her voice is appealing and she manages the high notes beautifully, but her stage presence isn’t convincing. Also, her French diction isn’t on par with Lehotský and Hebelková. In her Act III aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”, she bungles “vaillante”, “peur” and “dangereuse” into “vayant”, “per” and “dangeresse”. The Frasquita and Mercédčs of Hana Jonásová and Michaela Zajmi were good, especially in the Cards Scene “Męlons, coupons.” Unfortunately, the Dancairo and Remendado of Jirí Hruska and Václav Lemberk were sub-standard, both vocally and dramatically. They looked more like bureaucrats than smugglers, and their French was heavy-handed. This resulted in a mediocre Quintet “Nous avons en tęte une affaire”; vocally weak, dramatically unconvincing and devoid of humour.

Some unnecessary “innovative” special effects were at best amusing and at worst, distracting: a presenter boisterously prompts the action prior to each act, Carmen unsuccessfully tries to make a telephone call to Escamillo at the end of the third act leaving a loud tonality for a while and finally Don José takes off his hideous long coat after murdering Carmen, revealing a prisoner’s outfit underneath, and gets shot by a firing squad. Another amusing “innovation” was disguising the smugglers in Act III as priests in a procession of the Virgin of Guadalupe through the mountains of Extremadura, some two hundred kilometers north of Seville. However, this would suggest the bandits were not too savvy and smuggled goods from Portugal rather than Gibraltar!

Ossama el Naggar



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