Carmen on the Lake – Review
by Sandra Callard
Georges Bizet’s most famous and best loved opera Carmen takes a spectacular turn from what we are used to. The opera has been filmed on a lake near Lake Constance in Breganz, Austria, and is the most innovative production of an opera I have ever seen. It is due to be screened in nearly 300 theatres nationwide soon.
Brilliantly designed by British artist, Es Devlin, the floating stage holds a backdrop of gigantic suspended playing cards, which revolve and change faces to represent the progression of the story. The stage floor is a tumble of these giant cards, forming steps, caves and streets, with numerous hidden doors and exits. There is no other stage furniture, and the whole effect is startling and creative in an entirely new way.
Carmen is sung by Gaelle Arquez, a French mezzo soprano, and she is the epitome of who and what Carmen should be. She is a gypsy who believes implicitly in the tarot cards she threw as a child, and knows she will die young. Consequently she lives her life in the fast lane, daring anything, caring about nothing, and believing her beauty and sexuality will get her anything she likes.
Arques is both beautiful and sensual, and her voice is powerful and riveting. When she sings that ‘if she loves you she will be dangerous’, you believe her. Carmen is a massive role. She is on stage for most of the opera, and the number of arias and duets she sings is immense. Arques carries it off with ease, her beautiful mezzo voice never faltering.
She is partnered by Daniel Johansson, a Swedish tenor of size and power, and a worthy adversary to Arque’s Carmen. As a big man he conveys his subservience to Carmen with a heartbreaking pathos. She taunts and teases him, and his distress and hopeless passion for her is manifestly obvious. But his phoenix-like rise to domination over Carmen in the final scene is shocking and inevitable, and as his tenor soars over the lake his agony is tangible.
The lake is an extension of the stage and is used also as a novel prop. The girls from the tobacco factory, including Carmen, spill out of the factory for their break. They are carrying buckets which they fill with water from the lake and proceed to cool themselves down with a seductive display for the watching soldiers. They disappear under a sheaf of playing card floors as they return to their shifts.
It is sometimes difficult to keep your attention on the action as your eyes follow the remarkable scenery and wonder how on earth the architects and builders achieved such an amazing structure. But Bizet’s wonderful music conquers all, and the interlude is brief.
This is certainly a Carmen like no other, and purists may prefer the confines of the theatre, but surely the great and beautiful classics of the opera world can stand in their own right as exquisite creations of music, which cannot be sullied by innovation, no matter how spectacular these may be.