A sign of maturity in a city with an operatic tradition is renovation, by which I mean not only new material but valuable works from the four centuries of the genre that are being unjustifiably neglected. It can go overboard, as happened last year at the Colón, when five out of seven titles were unknown here. This year, if we discount an Argentine opera, there´s only one premiere, a double bill of Rachmaninov. Too little. The very low productivity has a lot to do with the lack of enough rotation: there´s a huge amount of worthwhile operas awaiting their turn, but with only six foreign opera titles against the eighteen of Valenti Ferro´s years (late Sixties) we are irretrievably falling behind. And what is lost in culture is never recouped.
Bizet´s "Carmen" has been often put on by non-Colón groups in recent years and in generally poor versions, although last year I was surprised that a condensed concert version could be so dramatic, with the artists "acting" from their places in front of the orchestra. The Colón was in a sense justified programming it, for at that theatre the last production was ten years ago (a purely Argentine cast of good quality) and "Carmen" is a very essential piece of the repertoire. But surely the first cast of the new presentation was below the standards of our great theatre. I couldn´t see the second cast but very reliable connoisseurs told me what I imagined, that it was much better.
This opera stands or falls by its two protagonists: Carmen and Don José. For some unexplained reason, Bielorussian mezzo Oksana Volkova, originally on the first cast, was supplanted by the Puerto-Rican Jossie Pérez. She has her merits though she isn´t quite first-rank. The voice is rather big but her timbre isn´t for all tastes; she sings reasonably well and she acts with earthiness; not a great personality: however, she is plausible in the difficult part, so Spanish and gypsy although with a French libretto.
But where this revival was unacceptable was in Thiago Arancam´s José. The Brazilian tenor making his debut is far from having the vocal means for this dramatic part (the voice is murky and only opens up in high notes) and he is a poor actor, so that memories of Jon Vickers (twice) and Neil Shicoff (1994) or Domingo in the Losey film, put him out of court. I certainly believe that Enrique Folger (second cast) should have been in the first, for he was excellent last year in the aforementioned concert performance: dramatic timbre and fierce acting were to be expected from him.
There were welcome debuts from the singers of Micaela and Escamillo. She was the Albanian Inva Mula, who is having a fine career in lyrical sweet soprano parts, and was the only one with good French (Arancam was unbelievably primitive in his diction). Mula´s timbre wasn´t as beautiful as I expected from DVDs but she sang with taste and accuracy; a pity that she projected mostly to the audience without interrelating with the other artists. The Escamillo was the Brazilian Rodrigo Esteves; he has the right type of voice, that of a bass-barytone; the quality of sound is good; he sings in tune, and has presence, perhaps a bit lacking in swagger.
The smaller parts were on a high level. Frasquita and Mercedes, Carmen´s friends, were very nicely sung by Marina Silva and Florencia Machado. They and the smugglers (Alejandro Meerapfel, Dancaire, and Sergio Spina, Remendado) gave character and a sense of fun to that pure fragment of "opéra-comique", the Smugglers´ Quintet (with Carmen). Finally, both Zúñiga (Fernando Radó) and Morales (Norberto Marcos) were strongly cast.
There are two versions of "Carmen": the original was as an "opéra-comique", which combines spoken parts with sung ones; but for Vienna, and after Bizet´s death, his friend Ernest Guiraud composed recitatives that are quite apposite and made the opera wholly sung. This has been the most often used and I think it works better, for the spoken parts are generally quite distorted in their diction outside France and Guiraud followed Bizet´s style admirably. Not always adherence to the original is the better choice, but unfortunately that´s what the Colón chose.
Emilio Sagi´s production had some good points. The hand programme states that it originated in Santiago de Chile but what we saw was only partially so: the stage designer, Daniel Bianco, the choreography by Nuria Castejón and the lighting by Eduardo Bravo come from there (duly adapted to the Colón´s proportions, almost doubling Santiago´s stage) but not the costumes by Renata Schussheim, who had also done them in 2003.
A moot point was the transposition of the action to the years immediately following the Civil War, with franquista soldiers. I don´t find it necessary but it doesn´t kill "Carmen" as long as it keeps the basic story, and Sagi does that. I object the unnecessary violence in several passages, the excessive aggression (at times almost dangerous for the artists) but there was agile movement (the kids really have fun in their Little Soldiers´ chorus) and real dramatic action. The raked and abrupt stage suggested an unreconstructed Seville. It was silly to add a transvestite to the Smugglers´ Quintet, the choreography was excessive as well as too noisy and I don´t like "acted" interludes: the music is quite enough. But some things were very good, such as the colorful pageant of the Fourth Act, and the Spanish ambience was obtained. I think unit sets are a bad idea but this one was better than most in suggesting different environments.