Artistic Director Jonathan Pell Venice Part I

by Megan Meister

I must have brought the Dallas weather with me—it is supposed to be close to 90 degrees today, and it rarely gets that hot so early in July.  The Adriatic coast of Italy is ill-equipped to cope with such heat and few buildings are air-conditioned.

I never thought I would say that the burning of the Teatro fenice in Venice was anything but a tragedy, but when the opera house (which originally opened in 1792) was rebuilt, air-conditioning was included in the construction plans.  I am very grateful.

Last night was a performance of Bizet’s CARMEN, staged by the notorious Catalan director Calixto Bieto.  Renowned (notorious, perhaps) for his brutal, violent and overtly sexual productions, this CARMEN was no exception.  The curtain rose on an essentially bare stage, which only had a pay telephone box stage right and a flag pole stage center.

If there had been any doubt about the Freudian significance of the flag pole, at the end of the first act a naked woman was hoisted up the pole while being sexually attacked by the garrison of soldiers.

At the introduction of the fate motif in the prelude, a fat old man appeared, apparently drunk and trying to perform a magic trick with a red silk handkerchief.  Was this the old “Don Jose” remembering his ill-fated love of the gypsy girl Carmen?

No, it later turns out to be the innkeeper, Lillas Pastia.

In Act II the stage was completely bare and an old Mercedes-Benz was rolled onto the stage?  Had the car broken down on the way to Lillias Pastia’s Inn?

There were graphically depicted sexual acts during the pulsating gypsy dance at the beginning of this act performed on and around the car.  I am sure that this had some profound meaning (after all, one of Carmen’s friends is named Mercedes) but it eluded me.

Most of the singing didn’t make up for the vulgar staging, with the exception of the charismatic Russian bass, Alexander Vinogradov, as Escamillo.  The Carmen and Don Jose, French mezzo-soprano Beatrice Uria-Monzon and Italian tenor Stefano Secco, each had effective moments, particularly in the final confrontation on a completely bare stage within a chalk circle that had been laid down for them by (once again) Lillas Pastia.

Say what one will about director Calixto Bieto, he certainly knows how to create (and escalate) dramatic tension on the stage.

All of this might have been excruciating to sit through, though, if it hadn’t been for the exciting conducting of Omer Meir Wellber, the Teatro la fenice’s young music director.  He really knows how to shape the score and build excitement musically and dramatically.  There was one moment at the end of Act III where the chorus seemed to lose contact with the pit, but he somehow managed to get everyone back together.

Tonight he will conduct Donizetti’s L’ELISIR D’AMORE, and I look forward to hearing what he does with this effervescent score, in many ways, the diametric opposite of CARMEN.

The chandelier of the restored Teatro la fenice in Venice, still the most opulent opera house in the world.

View of the stage from the palco reale (Royal Box) of the Teatro la fenice.

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