Opera Club: ‘Carmen’ and ‘Spring Storms’
If you had a chance to watch the first two options for our online opera club, we hope you enjoyed them: do feel free to send us any questions via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
This week we suggest Bizet’s Carmen as our classic and Jaromír Weinberger’s Spring Storms as our discovery. We are in Berlin for both productions after our New York visit last week, at the Staatsoper for Carmen and the Komische Oper for Spring Storms. Scroll down for links to each production and some context and background about each work. Do let us know what you think!
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Georges Bizet’s Carmen is one of those operas that we all know something about. Whether it is the “Toreador song”, the “Habanera”, or the Carmen neckline dress – the opera has long made it into popular and consumer culture. Most of us will also have an idea about her identity, maybe even her looks. Over the last 145 years, Carmen has developed into a stock figure; the hot-blooded gypsy beauty, who uses her exotic looks and sexual allure to play with the male gaze and conjure her admirers’ downfall. Carmen: the original, and ultimate femme fatale?
Considering the enormous popularity of the opera and its protagonist, it might come as a surprise that initially Carmen, which boasted a libretto (based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée) by two of the 19th century’s most skilled and prolific writers, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, was not a success. In fact, the premiere at the Opéra Comique in Paris in March 1875 provoked a scandal. Why? Against the tradition of the Opéra, which was a decidedly bourgeois institution with entertainment that typically confirmed conservative values, Carmen introduced as its heroine a proletarian, unmarried woman who regularly changes lovers and flaunts her disregard for the law. Instead of the usual happy ending, the opera ends in tragedy. This breach of the conventions of the genre of opéra comique and its home institution made opera history. Despite the initial outrage, Carmen evolved into an audience favourite – albeit only after Bizet’s death, and initially in a new version that replaced the original spoken dialogues with new recitatives (written by Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud) in order to comply with standard practice then dominated by grand opera. With its misleading name, the genre of opéra comique might suggest to us today, that humorous plotlines were a main characteristic. Instead, interspersed spoken dialogues between musical numbers were a defining feature, but fell out of fashion towards the end of the 19th century.
Carmen was a new departure in several ways. Bizet, who had himself suggested Mérimée’s story for a new opera, also challenged generic role types. The leading tenor, Don José, enters not with music, but dialogue, and has no aria proper in the entire opera (the “flower aria” in Act II, his confession of love to Carmen, is really part of a large-scale duet). His character is thus pitched considerably weaker than audiences would have come to expect, and also considerably weaker than Carmen’s. Her music, in comparison, identifies her as strong-willed, and laden with dangerous, erotic energy. Her “Habanera” is a performance within the performance – and throughout the opera, Carmen is shown to use music and dance to seduce and warn at the same time. Her music is active, rather than contemplative. The plot revolves around the turbulent love affair between army man José and the village woman Carmen, who resists her lover’s demands of commitment and faithfulness. Starting playfully, Carmen soon unfolds into story of recklessness, dependency, and unravelling disaster. While set in Spain and borrowing musical idioms from that milieu, Carmen is quintessentially French. One should not forget that its librettists wrote for Offenbach’s opéra bouffe, and that Bizet himself was “discovered” by Offenbach. Carmen is also an interesting case when considering the development of musical realism, verismo, in the late 19th century. In 1875, the psychological depths of Carmen’s characters, and above all its drama, were considered extraordinary. The fascination lasts until today.
The new production realised at Staatsoper Berlin decided to stage the original version with spoken French dialogue. In the role of Carmen, the Staatsoper presents mezzo soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, who might well prove to be among the most memorable singers to interpret this role this decade. Michael Fabiano is Don José, Lucio Gallo sings Escamillo, and Christiane Karg is a wonderfully lyric Micaëla. Daniel Barenboim conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin, the production was directed by Martin Kušej. The performance was recorded in an empty Staatsoper on March 12th 2020. The programme booklet is free to download, with a synopsis in English.
Programme booklet: https://www.staatsoper-berlin.de/en/veranstaltungen/carmen.7543/
Frühlingsstürme (Spring Storms)
The Komische Oper in Berlin recently premiered “the last operetta of the Weimar Republic” – the rediscovered Spring Storms by Jewish-Czech composer Jaromír Weinberger. The operetta was premiered in Berlin in late January 1933, but was closed only a few days later with the beginning of Nazi rule. It has since been forgotten; until now. Thanks to the team at Komische Oper and its artistic director Barry Kosky, who has become a true champion of neglected Weimar operetta, audiences can once again enjoy the lush sounds of Weinberger’s score (libretto by Gustav Beer, new orchestration by Norbert Biermann). Spring Storms breathes the air of Berlin at the end of the Weimar Republic: metropolitan sounds of jazz, lush lyrical melodies written for star tenor Richard Tauber, and snappy dance breaks.
The story, set during the time of the Japanese-Russian war at the beginning of the 20th century, allowed Weinberger to include plenty of musical exoticism: another fashionable device in early 1930s operetta writing. This production, directed by Kosky and designed by Klaus Grünberg and Dinah Ehm, is a feast for eyes and ears with its feather dances, ball gowns, Chinese dragons, and a real firework display. A real find is soprano Vera-Lotte Becker in the leading role: her bright tone and lyricism make her a perfect choice for this piece! Sung in German, with English surtitles. Plot in English also available via the link.
Last week’s Online Opera Club suggestions: La Traviata and a Lieder concert in NY. https://www.niopera.com/2020/03/19/opera-club/