Carmen has become a parody of 'Spanishness' – no more

by Linda Herrick / 05 June, 2017

Nino Surguladze plays Carmen.

The NZ Opera’s new production of Bizet’s most famous work breaks the mold.

Over decades of production, Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen has stagnated into a parody of “Spanishness”.

The title character, a peasant working in a cigarette factory, has become a stylistic cliché of towering black hair and hoop earrings, flinging her fringed skirts around for an audience of gaping soldiers.

Opera Queensland artistic director Lindy Hume is rejecting all that for her staging of the tragedy for New Zealand Opera, exercising what she calls a “ruthless cliché pogrom” and bringing Carmen’s intelligence and independence to the fore.

“There’s a template of what she looks like, but we don’t do any of that. She’s got red hair,” says Hume, herself a redhead. “There’s no rose, no fans; there is nothing Spanish, no hands on hips.

“Even people who have never seen Carmen go, ‘That’s what she looks like.’ But I am saying, ‘She might not look like that.’ She is naughty, she’s bored, she’s frustrated. Honestly, I looked at it and thought there is not a lot in this production that I wouldn’t do in extremis. She is very bright, direct and forthright and, for me, that’s what makes her sexy.

Director Lindy Hume.

“But what do you do if you’re a really bright person and the best you can do is either prostitution or work in a factory? I think in Carmen there’s this potential for something much greater.”

This interpretation of Carmen, which Hume first created 25 years ago, was a breakthrough in what has grown into a long, highly regarded career. “I had directed before, but I don’t think I had married me as an artist with the work, and it all came together with Carmen: the person and the politics, a sense of her identity. But I could not have predicted that, 25 years and several iterations later, I’d still be thinking those ideas were sound.”

Carmen is essentially a love quadrangle in which she carelessly flirts with a besotted soldier, Don José, breaking the heart of his girlfriend, Micaëla. But Carmen is just toying with Don José. She falls for toreador Escamillo, who loves her in return. There’s plenty of stirring and celebrated music – the Seguidilla, the Toreador Song – and at the end, (spoiler alert) Carmen dies.

Hume has assembled an impressive cast for the New Zealand season, including Georgian mezzo-soprano Nino Surguladze as Carmen, American-born tenor Tom Randle as Don José, and Australians James Clayton (baritone) as Escamillo and soprano Emma Pearson as Micaëla. New Zealanders in the line-up include Wade Kernot, James Harrison, Amelia Berry, Kristin Darragh and James Benjamin Rodgers.

Tom Randle (Don José).

The production also features the stage designs from Hume’s original Opera Australia season, created by her old mate Dan Potra, “the most Aussie Transylvanian you’ll ever meet”.

Unusually, the show requires a fight director. “There are two scenes I find extremely hard to direct,” Hume says. “One is at the end of Act 3, where Don José beats Carmen up. It is ghastly to watch. This production goes much further in terms of domestic violence – this is a story about a man who beats up his girlfriend because she won’t come back to him. That’s not a new story, so you have to do justice to that, you can’t pretty it up. People say, ‘Oh, lighten up,’ but no, actually, I won’t.

“And the other difficult scene is when Don José turns up at the end of Act 4. Carmen is fully complete now with Escamillo and ready to die. She expects this confrontation, but she is surprised by how completely ruined Don José is. It’s terribly sad.”

Hume hasn’t staged her production for 10 years – it played first in Perth and then, for Opera Australia, in Sydney and Melbourne in 2005 – and she says she has reworked it substantially for this show. “I hadn’t looked at it for about 10 years and I still find those scenes quite heartbreaking.”

Emma Pearson (Micaëla). Photo/Kurt Sneddon

Hume’s reading of Carmen flips the conventional portrayal of her as a floozy. “The world in which Carmen and the other women live is very much a patriarchal, blokey society, and in a Donald Trump world, there’s still a place for this. But I’ve had men write to me saying, ‘She deserved it.’ Scary, isn’t it?”

With relish, she describes the opera as “quite a dark production”.

“This Carmen has got a view, it’s got a philosophy. If people are coming for the Spanish dancing, the swishing skirts, I’m afraid I can’t deliver on that, but I can deliver on all the drama and emotion and a real sense of huge admiration for this character.

“I think it’s a genius piece of writing. The music is so very famous you need to play it as genuine drama and so it’s got a lot more drama. It feels very honest, very real.

“A lot of people love it, but some people hate it because it takes the toys away.”

Carmen: St James Theatre, Wellington, June 1-10; Aotea Centre, Auckland, June 22-July 1; Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, July 13-22.

This article was first published in the June 3, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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