VENZAGO - MÄRKI - FÜRHOFER
VENZAGO - MÄRKI - FÜRHOFER
In Stephan Märki's interpretation, Carmen is a woman longing for death, staging sex as a weapon in a world where seduction means strength, but devotion means downfall. Love and Death are embodied by a dancer who mirrors Carmen's thoughts and emotions. Conductor Mario Venzago draws upon the “Carmen” research by musicologist Fritz Oeser, who restores Bizet's original version, giving the piece new depth and new life to the well-known arias. Philipp Fürhofer's stage design sets the singers in a mirror cabinet, creating a mise en abyme of perspectives and allusions.
Stephan Märki has staged "Carmen" as a psychological drama. He has dispensed with clichés and Spanish folklore, and portrays a female character whose complex and contradictory actions follow an inner impulse that ultimately leads her full circle – into the abyss and to her death.
Stephan Märki says, “In our reading, Carmen is hopelessly seeking true love, which she can only identify as desire, as a commodity or business transaction, or as the brief thrill of falling in love. ’Les amours de Carmen ne durent pas six mois' (’Carmen’s love affairs never last more than six months’) sings torero Escamillo, who could have been her last lover. In her short life she has experienced virtually everything, yet is never satisfied, always on the run, a seeker, a candle burning at both ends. She lacks the ability for empathy, seducing others like a female Don Juan, without ever really committing herself. She is a narcisstic woman in love only with her reflection, and she insists on being free."
At the beginning of Stephan Märki's interpretation, Carmen is about to leap to her death. The charismatic mezzo-soprano Claude Eichenberger sings and acts with an intensity that traces her character‘s every emotion. At the last moment, she backs off and is then throughout shadowed by an enigmatic figure, her alter ego, the “Joker“. The dancer Winston Ricardo Arnon from Surinam, a powerhouse of expression and wit, embodies Carmen's longing for death - seen only by her and the audience. He is also a demiurge of events, accompanying entrances and exits and pulling the strings like a puppet-master in the background. Carmen, who refuses his kiss in the opera‘s overture, will ultimately surrender to him. Death then enfolds her, in a Pietà like gesture.
During the piece, Märki’s Carmen "is flashing through the repeated patterns of her life like a person facing death”, Märki says. She meets Don José and Escamillo, two men who are poles apart. Don José ultimately kills her out of jealousy – or does Carmen kill herself? (Märki allows for both interpretations) – he is a desperate lover obsessed with the one woman he can never have. The Spanish tenor Xavier Moreno embodies the figure in all its facets: he adores Carmen and crawls into her lap like a child with his mother. He worships her like a goddess, submitting to her in a frenzy of love and torment.
The baritone Jordan Shanahan plays Escamillo, portraying him as a champion. He is like a pop star, bestowing money and blowing kisses, yet in his few encounters with Carmen he shows a touching masculine tenderness. He is the one who could have been Carmen’s equal. With the Joker, who mutates into the bull, Märki shows that both are connected by the theme of death.
A thrilling chamber play unfolds on stage. Märki's characters are singing actors in an archetypal drama; no clichéd operatic gesture spoils the authenticity of the experience. Märki's second female character, Micaëla, sung by the enchanting soprano Elissa Huber, is truly Carmen‘s equal. Far from being a shy country bumpkin, she is a woman who fights for the love of Don José and she quickly sees through Carmen‘s shenanigans. Their encounter culminates in a passionate kiss with which Carmen seeks to conquer Micaëla, but Micaëla sacrifices neither her pride nor her strength. In Märki's vision Carmen and Micaëla appear like the light and the dark side of womanhood; he leaves no doubt as to who is the true lover in this drama of fatal encounters.
By stripping away layer after layer of Carmen`s and the other protagonists’ characters, the director exposes the motives of their actions and moods and penetrates their innermost being. He reveals the fascination of this spectacular opera, whose popular arias are often submerged in folksy kitsch. Märki uses Prosper Mérimée's novella as a basis for his direction, since it outlines the characters more clearly than Henri Meilhac’s and Ludovic Halevy’s libretto.
Mario Venzago has arranged the score following the original version of "Carmen" according to Fritz Oeser's research. He and Märki delete the recitatives and most of the dialogue, their interpretation condensing the opera to its essence. Carmen's famous seduction aria "L'amour est enfant de Bohème, il n'a jamais connu de loi" ('Bohemian love follows no rules') has a merciless end in Bizet's original version: "Si tu ne m'aimes pas, je t'aime – mais si je t'aime, tant pis pour toi!" ('if you don't love me, I love you – but if I love you, it's a pity for you'). Ruin is pre-programmed in Bizet's original version of the opera, whereas the second, more densely orchestrated version leaves the ending open: "mais si je t'aime, prends garde à toi" ('...but if I love you, you better take care').
Märki and Venzago pose questions that challenge the viewer as an active participant: Is Carmen a courageous woman who defends her freedom and would rather die than surrender to the male desire that tries to cage her? They show Carmen's vulnerability, which she fears more than death, both musically and with visual images that burn themselves into the minds of the audience. Märki brings psychological motives into play. In his staging, the chorus of ragamuffins is conjured from Carmen’s memory: the boys are a phalanx of little beauty princesses, as Carmen once was – a little girl who learned at an early age how to please others, and how to compete and win. Carmen has to emerge victorious from every emotional encounter. She must be the one to teach all others to fear her.
Eros is not always bound to Thanatos but can be quite cheerful, as shown in the delightful smuggler’s quintet in the third Act (with Lilian Farahani, Eleonora Vacchi, Andries Cloete and Nazariy Sadivskyy as the band of robbers): charming and cheeky and highly erotic, the smugglers compete for Carmen's favour.
Philipp Fürhofer's stage design creates a space in which complex character direction and the rapid shifts between solo moments and choral scenes can unfold: the dominant motif is a vast mirror, as if the director and the set designer want to say that all of us are just like Carmen and Don José. And so Carmen picks out a spectator and hands him the "magic flower", her red glove. Even here the death joker playfully guides her hand. Don José rises in astonishment, looks around him, as if uncertain that he meant him - and then follows Carmen onto the stage, and to his doom. BETTINA EHRHARDT
Film Director’s Note
This opera evening has had a lasting effect on me: I have never seen a "Carmen" like it. How Stephan Märki draws an arc from the prelude all the way to the finale and tells the story of a woman who is a seducer because she is incapable of love is psychoanalytically truthful. It shows us the familiar Carmen figure in a new light. Märki tracing the story back to the ancient Narcissus myth underlines the modernity of his interpretation. This is how we are as human beings, Märki and his collaborators, conductor Mario Venzago and costume designer Philipp Fürhofer, seem to say, fearing what we most desire. Carmen’s anguish when Don José confesses his love to her; her ice-cold reaction "non, tu ne m'aimes pas", when she not only rejects his love, but also fortifies her own inner barriers which had briefly begun to waver… this is so clearly staged that Claude Eichenberger's every nuanced expression and gesture are filled with meaning and vitality. The passionate commitment and the captivating musicality of all the performers, Carmen, Micaëla, Don José, Escamillo and the smuggler gang are completely gripping.
I immediately felt the desire to record this opera in Stephan Märki's new interpretation. His precise reading is well revealed by the magnifying eye of the camera. The 4th wall falls away, the stage space continues into the auditorium, the male chorus sits in the upper tiers as part of the audience, and Don José is also initially a simple operagoer. Philipp Fürhofer's room-high mirror wall pulls the audience into the action on stage. The conductor too is part of the action and his reflection can be seen at the beginning of the opera and as the last picture.
The music is the game leader; the conductor and director have arranged the piece by returning to Bizet's first version in such a way that nothing interrupts the essential features of the musical narrative.
Camera work and editing techniques have been put entirely in the service of the musical sensibility of Stephan Märki's production.