Boston Lyric Opera opens its Season with the East Coast premiere of Calixto Bieito’s famous production of Bizet’s Carmen in the Opera House on September 23, with repeat performances on September 25 (m) and 30 and on October 2 (m).
Since 1999, Calixto Bieito has probably become the most prominent stage director for opera in Europe, and certainly the most controversial. (His name, incidentally, is pronounced “Be-yay-toe.”)
His production of Carmen has made the Catalan director internationally famous – over the last 17 years, it has been revived in more than a dozen cities in Spain, the rest of Europe, Scandinavia, South America, and now the United States; the first American performances are a co-production between San Francisco Opera and Boston Lyric Opera. Next season, he belatedly arrives at the Metropolitan Opera for Verdi’s La Forza del Destino.
Bieito’s assistant on Carmen was a colleague and friend, Joan Anton Rechi, who has been in charge of many of the subsequent revivals – including the one here, even though he has long since developed a successful career as a director himself. He has even staged his own production of Carmen, in Germany.
Last week, Rechi sat a table in the lower lobby of the Opera House to talk about Bieito, Carmen, and the state of opera.
He has a theatrical air about him – like Bieito, Rechi began his career as an actor, and gesturing with his hands is a part of his thought process. (“I liked acting, but what really interested me was the process of putting a production and a performance together; after accomplishing that, it was not so interesting to me to repeat it night after night.”) But he also has the seriousness of purpose and the focus of a highly intelligent graduate student; he is engaging and forthcoming.
Bieito’s productions get under the skin of some members of traditional audiences and some critics, especially in Great Britain – on the other hand, they also attract young people who grew up on recent movies and cable television.
Bieito loves the visual arts: the lighting of his Carmen derives from his study of chiaroscuro in the paintings and prints of Goya. But he also loves movies and often pays homage to the imagery and visual style of his favorites. His work has often been compared to that of his filmmaking countryman, Pedro Almodóvar, and to Quentin Tarantino.
Bieito is a proud provocateur, determined to engage the themes and concerns of the composers and librettists in contemporary rather than traditional language. You can see graphic and sometimes almost pornographic examples in the few commercial video versions of his work – Wozzeck, Don Giovanni, Boris Godunov, as well as Carmen. A few others circulate among collectors – Fidelio, La Juive, Un Ballo in Maschera – and there are many disturbing scenes available on YouTube from Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, which Bieito set in a brothel, Turandot, which he set in a doll factory in China, and the ghastly murder of Lulu in Berg’s opera.
Among the adjectives bestowed on Carmen by the British press are “raunchy,” “squalid,” “vulgar,” “tacky” “tasteless,” “tawdry,” and paradoxically, with evident approval, “slutty.” Nevertheless, the production has been packing audiences into theaters and opera houses for 17 years now.
Rechi reminds us that the world premiere of Carmen was “scandalous.” “So was the premiere of La Traviata. We can say that Calixto’s productions are historically informed! Look at his Don Giovanni, which created a very big scandal. What does the opera open with? Well, a rape and a murder.”
(For that matter, nearly a century ago the Boston police once arrested the soprano Mary Garden and the baritone Vanni-Marcoux because of the realism of their rape scene in second act of Puccini’s Tosca, a rape that was interrupted by an aria and murder.)
The opening scene of Bieito’s production of Un Ballo in Maschera is invariably cited by the director’s detractors. The opening image is of politicians plotting murder while seated on toilets in the men’s room. Rechi’s take is that this is completely realistic. “The visual language comes from The Godfather. The conspirators are in a parliament building awaiting the arrival of the king they plan to assassinate. Where are they going to discuss this? In the lobby, surrounded by the press, cameras, and microphones? No – they are going to hide out in the men’s room.” Rechi is both bemused and aghast at how this scene has been made to smear the whole production. “It lasts all of two minutes!”
Bieito came to opera through the spoken theater; he was trained as an actor in Barcelona and soon was part of a theater company that he ran until quite recently. Rechi met Bieito, who is seven years his senior, when he (Rechi) was still in drama school and joined Bieito’s company as an actor.
He says that there is nothing in any Bieito production that is more explicit than what audiences can expect to find in most movies these days, or on television – or even in Shakespeare. Bieito’s production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth was criticized for excessive violence, particularly in the scene in which the children of Macduff are slain. “This is not a nice thing to do, even if you are wearing period costumes!” Rechi says. To cut this scene, which has often happened, is not true to the situation, or to the story, or to Shakespeare.
There is abundant eroticism in Bieito’s Carmen, but the way eroticism can unhinge a character – or the way eroticism exists as a source of power – is the point of the story. As for violence, Escamillo is a matador, a bullfighter. Violence is a part of the world and society in which the principal figures live. At the beginning of Bieito’s production, a prisoner of the soldiers is forced to run laps until he collapses. Later there is a brief nude scene of a toreador exposing himself to the bull the night before the fight, a scene that is always mentioned in accounts of the production, but it is nothing scandalous because the practice is apparently an old, quasi-sacred or mystical one (and a dimly-lit one onstage).
Carmen was Bieito’s second opera production (the first was Offenbach’s Voyage to the Moon, which was also Sarah Caldwell’s first production with her Opera Company of Boston in 1958).
Bieito comes from a musical family, and Rechi studied music both as a singer and a pianist. Neither was satisfied by traditional productions of Carmen.
“Folkloric productions, with flamenco dresses and mantillas and all of that, always made me think of Disneyland, and they made me uncomfortable – the way Americans must feel about performances of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West,” Rechi says. “There is something powerful and strong about Carmen, something very Spanish, and too many pretty and traditional productions miss it completely.”
Bieito’s choice was to set Carmen in the 1970s, in the aftermath of the death of the longtime dictator Francisco Franco – the time of Bieito’s own childhood and adolescence in Northern Spain. He found that the visual world he remembered still existed in the two Spanish cities in Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla. “Our trip there was very intriguing,” Rechi recalls. “It was a universe in which you could find everything from plasma TVs to abject poverty and a frontier atmosphere, like the Wild West. Calixto put it all onstage. He wasn’t trying to be ‘modern’ or avant-garde – the production is actually very realistic.”
There are only a few solid elements in the setting – a flagpole, a phone booth (now a period detail), a plastic Christmas tree, a parking lot or automobile graveyard in the mountains. The largest scenic element is an Osborne bull – a giant silhouette of a bull that was originally created to advertise sherry in the mid 1950s but which has long since lost its commercial function to become a symbol for Spain and everything Spanish – only 200 of the original signs survive, but the image is ubiquitous in contemporary Spanish culture.
Some of the powerful atmosphere of the production is created by costumes and even more by a complex lighting plot; the action unfolds in a circle of light that evokes a bullring. The prop list is extensive and challenging, ranging from an orange popsicle to six vintage Mercedes automobiles, which take up most of the backstage area in the Opera House – San Francisco found them for their production, and afterwards they were trucked to Boston.
But most of the atmosphere comes from the energy and specificity of the chorus and the principal characters.
Rechi is full of praise for his Boston cast, headed by Jennifer Johnson Cano in the title role. “She is a fantastic Carmen who is bringing something very personal and deep to the role; it is a very psychological portrayal. She is such a good singer, she brings a real commitment to the words, and her chemistry with Don Jose and Escamillo is a dream for me.”
By now Rechi has directed many singers in the title role, and he feels the production allows each of them to bring something individual to the production. “The blocking is always the same, but there is freedom to bring out the aspects of the character which are part of who you are – some Carmens are sexy, others are more deep and fatalistic, or have a sense of fun.” By chance he mentions his particular fondness for Jossie Pérez, who has appeared in a couple of the revivals; he didn’t know that this New England Conservatory-trained mezzo had sung Carmen in a previous Boston Lyric Opera production back in 2002 that played to the largest public the company has reached so far – more than 140,000 people crowded into the two free performances on the Boston Common.
He is also happy with the chorus, which plays an especially prominent role in this opera. Actually, it plays prominent roles because Bieito uses the chorus as a community of individuals and encourages the members to create their own identities as they are in constant motion swirling across the stage. “It’s a matter of energy.” Rechi says. “That is contagious to the audience and that is what makes this production so successful.” And he admits that one choral episode in the last act can still move him to tears.
Bieito just finished a production of La Juive in Munich; yes, it was controversial. Coming up for him are new productions or revivals of Tosca, The Fiery Angel, Tannhäuser, Der Fliegende Holländer, Otello, Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen, and the Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus. Rechi moves on to productions of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in Bogotá, and productions of Mozart’s Così Fan Ttutte and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, as well as continuing the journeys of Carmen to Portugal, France and Italy.
Rechi says he never gets tired of Carmen – or of opera. “There is a space for everything in opera; for me it is a perfect combination of music and theater.”
Richard Dyer is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for The Boston Globe for more than 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.