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Jaws of Doom I: Carmen & Don José

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

It takes the proverbial village to carry the finale of Bizet's Carmen to the stage. Spontaneous danger must be represented but only as the result of attentive resolution of the material's musical and theatrical difficulties. Carmen and Don José are bound by the plot to display hostility towards each other, and whether or not they are mediated by a director, it is imperative that such displays be plotted and executed within unambiguous boundaries of mutual respect and care. Failure to do so cannot be condemned harshly enough!

The score is musically volatile, tricky to play, sing, and coordinate with action. Bizet's compositional brilliance means a high risk of musical mistakes—wrong notes, right notes at the wrong time, wrong notes at the wrong time. Carmen and Don José depend heavily upon their partner(s) in sound—conductor/orchestra/pianist—who must have such control over the musical challenges that they can be as alert as dance partners to the protagonists' in-the-moment performance needs. Any musical shortcomings jolt all and sundry out of the world that is Carmen into the obscenity that is human earsore.

Additionally, much of the finale's success hinges upon the rhetorical and scenic eloquence of the artist cast as Don José. José spills his guts out to Carmen in a series of increasingly desperate musical paragraphs and must match those utterances with his body language. Such conditions cannot be fulfilled by the vocal and physical posturings of an Opera Macho; the tenor performing Don José must be brave enough to unman himself and reveal vulnerability. To her very death Carmen rejects José's insistence on a life together, but if the artist in that role fails to invest himself in the character, what can she do? what is there for her to play against?!

On to a pair of theatrical performances, worlds apart in their respective provenances. For all the scrutiny of the visual aspects, readers are heartily encouraged to also listen to this footage as an audio-only experience.

1959/06/13 Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

Bolshoi Theatre Chorus & Orchestra

c. Alexander Melik-Pashayev

Don José: Mario del Monaco

Carmen: Irina Arkhipova

Arkhipova and chorus sing in Russian (version by A. Gorchakova)

del Monaco sings in Italian (version by Achille de Lauzières)

History is being made here: the first Italian singer to perform in Soviet Russia rocks the Bolshoi, and that singer is Mario del Monaco. del Monaco is engrossing to witness, a great artist in an exotic context yet never at a loss, performing generously and gaining a triumph. Fundamental to his performance is an unassailable preparation: so securely does del Monaco know the opera—not merely his role but the others around him—that he can engage with the other characters, all singing a language unfamiliar to him, and never betray the slightest distraction. One cannot underestimate this valiant display of artistic tunnel vision.

Physically, del Monaco's Don José is a live wire commanding an extensive gestural vocabulary scaled for the theatre: speaking with his eyes, nodding or shaking his head, pleading with his arms, heavy breathing, bursting into sobs, beating his breast, falling to his knees as if offering Carmen one final desperate marriage proposal, and finally covering his face in remorse at the opera's end. Late in the scene, he synchronizes two significant actions to musical landmarks in the score—at the C major chord prior to «Ainsi, le salut de mon âme» (here «Or tu, ti rifiuti a mie brame») José turns and advances upon Carmen; on the F-sharp major chord before his final declaration, José drops his knife—and they seem not chores timed to a soundtrack but rightful punctuations of theatrically and musically decisive moments.

And He Sings. This is prime del Monaco, his voice free and immediate even at the end of an evening of high adrenaline, indefatigably pouring out his signature bronze tone, and articulating every syllable with urgency. Watching him in the act of song provides an additional multifaceted frisson, the revelations that a mortal man is indeed emitting these sounds, what he must do physically to ensure the creation of said sounds, and where the lines of distinction between his singing and his characterization blur.

His Carmen is Irina Arkhipova, sporting all the accoutrements of vintage Carmen glamour: mantilla, jewelry, fan, eye enhancement. Lush-timbred with a vibrato that enhances the excitement of her sound, she authoritatively addresses her Don José wherever the vocal line takes her. The friction between their respective performing traditions is endearing. Arkhipova later recalled del Monaco's insistence that she as Carmen physically mistreat him as Don José and that she had to overcome her initial reluctance (out of respect) to do so: those actions are the extreme of her stage violence. Theatrical menace is contradicted by the heartwarming spectacle of the company bows: del Monaco gallant and grateful to Arkhipova, the entire Bolshoi company onstage applauding, and the Bolshoi audience on its feet, vociferously enthusiastic quasi all'italiana (!).

Arkhipova and especially del Monaco are secure to unleash their demons thanks to the scene's «third character». The Bolshoi orchestra conducted by Alexander Melik-Pashayev is unanimously coordinated both as an ensemble and with the madness onstage. Unreserved appreciation for them and for Mo. Melik-Pashayev, who gives his divi the pacing they need to interpret, whether that mean breathing room or alacrity. Without stifling anything in the music, the maestro leads all to the opera's end inevitably—it is as bracing as a double shot of vodka.

2019/04 Fargo-Moorhead Opera, Fargo ND

Fargo-Moorhead Opera Chorus & Orchestra

c. Eric Weimer

Don José: Joshua Kohl

Carmen: Hilary Ginther

This production relocates the opera's action to the Spanish Civil War—not a novel conceit, Frank Corsaro did as much back in the early '80s—to self-explanatory effect on décor, props, and costumes. The effect on the characters' relationship is a more nuanced matter.

In the moments leading up to the lethal blow, Mérimée's José recalls that «Rage consumed me. I drew my knife. I would have liked for her to be afraid and beg me for mercy, but that woman was a demon.» Here, in trying to communicate that they have no future together, Carmen seems to express sympathy towards José; he breaks out into violence far in advance of the murder, shocking her into a horrified instinct to escape. Their physical struggles escalate until José drowns Carmen in the plaza fountain (strategically located stage left, audibly running water throughout). It's a successfully disturbing inspiration which makes Carmen's murder seem even more than usual an act of depravity. It also provokes a parallel disturbance by attributing to the protagonists traits which the authors did not make intrinsic to their characters—for Don José, a capacity for sadism, and for Carmen, a capacity for fear. The gain in visceral impact comes at a loss of the sense of Carmen and José's last battle in an opera-long war of wills.

At least the staging is informed by energy and interest; those qualities are insufficient in conductor Eric Weimer's musical leadership. His reflexes are just sluggish enough that he fails to precisely coordinate onsets between pit and stage in those moments calling for give-and-take with the singers—they have to slow down or speed up in order to catch him. Less problematic are the sections where the orchestra can establish a groove and go, but even there for all the rhythmic steadiness there's not a strong sense of forward motion toward phrase endings. Carmen is an immortal score but in order to fully spring to life needs a less inhibited battuta than Mr. Weimer's.

Joshua Kohl as Don José is an industrious performer grappling with material that demands eloquence beyond his ken. Solid of tone, he sings successions of individual notes that don't lead from one to the other: they fail to sound like sentences set to music. Francophone critics would say «il chante un français perfectible»: his French could stand some improvement—he tries to pronounce the language using American phonemes and American inflections. He is up to the staging's physical exigencies but prior to José's break into physical aggression does not imbue his movements with emotional significance. A crucial example is José's first «Tu ne m'aimes donc plus?» (Do you not love me anymore?): Mr. Kohl's body language reads as bashful conversation instead of José finally articulating the unthinkable. The gravity of the moment is conveyed instead by the reaction of his scene partner: in succinct dumbshow, Hilary Ginther's Carmen communicates regret, hopelessness, and unspoken refusal. Mr. Kohl's reaction in turn seems the discharge of a professionally agreed-upon migratory pattern—a Backwards Walk of Shock.

Carmen is the one who manifests rhetorical and histrionic eloquence here. Hilary Ginther is what the Italians call «un autentico animale da palcoscenico»—a true stage animal. Not only does she unflinchingly dispatch the staging's athletics all the way to Carmen's gruesome death spasms, her character's body language reads psychologically true as an astutely observed and acutely felt theatrical representation of real-life behavior. Ms. Ginther makes singing look like a natural act, and confident her singing is. She fearlessly scales Carmen's extremes of range and rage, disgorging the grand two-octave A-flat to A-flat gesture «Non! je ne te cédèrai pas!» and ringing out the other high A-flat on «que je l'aime!». Wisely, she abstains from inflating her gentler-grained middle register. Ms. Ginther's French is admirable in pronunciation and phrasing: she sings and gestures sentences, as people do in real life but fail to do on the American opera stage. One is curious how she could flourish in a different context with a Don José who relishes his anguish, a conductor capable of galvanizing their forces, in a staging that invites Carmen to rightfully claim all her magnificent implacability.

Carmen and Don José are left alone onstage to the very end—there's no one to whom Mr. Kohl can address «Vous pouvez m'arrêter» (You can arrest me)—and the curtain falls on the haunting image of José cradling Carmen's lifeless body.

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