Carmen is back to the Bastille Opera in a legendary production by Calixto Bieito. The stage director, who revisited for the Opera Lear, by Aribert Reimann and Simon Boccanegra, by Giuseppe Verdi, shares with us his own vision of Bizet’s work and Carmen, a complex woman with a thousand faces.
Your production of Carmen has been touring throughout the world for about twenty years. Do you remember how you first approached this opera?
Calixto Bieito: In directing Carmen, I wanted above all to free this opera from clichés. I didn’t want to imprison it in myth, especially not that surrounding femininity. I approached Carmen like a universal human character, like those of Shakespeare.
How would you describe “your” Carmen?
It has been suggested that your Carmen was a prostitute…
The Carmen and José couple you present gives the impression that you go beyond the "fait divers" to focus on a more societal and systemic form of violence…
The final murder is presented in a very stark manner…
C.B.: Yes, I contest the idea that Carmen seeks her own death and provokes José in order to be killed. Carmen wants to live and feel alive.
Carmen is one of the world's most widely performed operas. How does one handle that kind of shared preconception, that level of audience expectation? How does one free one’s self from it?
C.B.: Although I am from a family of musicians and was
immersed in opera from an early age, I did not want to tackle Carmen weighed down by tradition. I had
no image in my head; my work was constructed by listening attentively to the
music. For this production we have created different lighting effects that
refer as much to Goya or Zurbarán as to the light one might savour in the
Moroccan desert. We don’t refer to a precise period: this could be the end of Franco’s
dictatorship just as it could be the early eighties… The quintet contains a
parodical reference to traditional Spain: I wanted it to be disjointed,
sarcastic and cynical. Mercedes and Frasquita wear flamenco costumes that
remind us of what the tourists come to see in Spain. Of course, this is heavy
In your rereading, the theme of frontiers is widely present. A theme that resonates strongly today…
C.B.: Yes, although given the importance in the media of the
immigration question, it might seem opportunist to describe it today as an
essential element in a production created nearly twenty years ago. Carmen is a
frontier, in a literal sense: physically as well as metaphorically. And when I
created this production eighteen years ago, this issue was not as global or as
unavoidable as it has since become. The geographical issue is, by the way,
emphasised by the treatment of the stage as a desert area. The bull is not an
image of virility: it evokes the idea of the solitude belonging to such places.
It is just like the bulls that line the roads of Monegros, in particular, near
Zaragoza. Mountainous landscapes inhabited by those giants that are visible
from miles around.
Interview by Marion Mirande and Simon Hatab
Your reading: Freeing Carmen