In an era when you can listen to practically anything practically anywhere, it’s a wonder anyone still bothers going to the opera. It’s an archaic, elaborate spectacle that requires an army of artists and wheelbarrows full of money to stage. The plots are flimsy and familiar, the music old fashioned and the acting stilted. And–what should be the nail in the coffin—you have to pay to sit still for hours.
But, as we discovered last night, lots of people still do go, at least in Turin, and with pleasure. As we arrived at the Teatro Regio to see Carmen, the place was rapidly filling up with flocks of elegant culture vultures, leaving their coats at the vast guardaroba, poring over the program and chatting with friends.
Turin has had a ‘Royal Theater’ since the eighteenth century, with distinct phases involving restorations, Napoleon and the Restoration. In 1936, a great fire destroyed it completely and it lay disused for thirty years as the country’s finances were occupied with war and its costly consequences. In 1967, the work of raising the phoenix was finally entrusted to the architect Carlo Mollino (1905-1973) and the theater was inaugurated 10 April 1973. Some attribute to Mollino the quote, “Everything is permissible as long as it is fantastic”. Whether or not it is true, it seems an good summary of his modus operandi because the theater is full of quirky design features. The stage is designed to look like a television set; the color scheme is reminiscent of a lava lamp with reds and purples; chandeliers are in space-aged globular clusters or stalactite pipes. As you enter the theater, there are circular holes in the walls of each entrance that allow you to glimpse another person moving in the same direction—giving the fleeting impression of a mirror image.
In order to enter the theater, you must first pass through the ‘Musical Odyssey’ (‘Odissea Musicale’) gate, sculpted in bronze by Umberto Mastroianni (1910-1998). This, like everything else in the theater, has the feeling of a ritual designed to enhance the sense of entering an alternative, fantasy world.
Carmen is an opera based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée about a beautiful Roma woman who robs a soldier then falls in love with him. His corresponding love for her leads him to kill a man so becoming an outlaw, and then to kill her husband out of jealousy. She then falls for a matador and the ex-soldier kills her. The opera composed by Georges Bizet in 1875 is a bit different in that Carmen is not married and the soldier doesn’t kill anyone, with the result that the whole thing makes no sense.
One critic present at the opera’s premiere described the singer Célestine Galli-Marie’s Carmen as “the very incarnation of vice” (as if that would deter anyone) and it’s true, she’s a lot less inhibited than most operatic heroines. She works in a cigarette factory, has brigands for friends, tries to carve a cross in a colleague’s forehead in a cat fight, uses sexual favors to get out of trouble and abruptly ditches her besotted beau for a hotter prospect. Somehow, the mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan played the voluptuary with a violent streak in a way that also makes you think she is a noble, if sensuous, spirit simply obeying Nature’s imperatives. At the same time, though, I was reminded of a girl in my high school named Jackie, who was a holy terror, tore through boyfriends, had three kids by the age of 18 and had a feud with the town policeman. I vividly remember her punching a guy’s broken arm and stabbing rabbit fetuses during high school dissection class. Right up until fifth form, when she dropped out, I avoided her as I would a human volcano, but now I realize she was the perfect Bizet heroine.
The doomed lover Don Jose by comparison comes off as a wet noodle, who should obviously have married the nice girl Micaëla and saved everyone a lot of trouble. Just to clarify, by wet noodle, I am talking about the character, not the singer, because the tenor Andrea Caré (who is from Turin and has sung at the Met, the Royal Opera House and pretty much everywhere else) managed to fill the auditorium very nicely.
The director set this opera in the Spanish Civil War and I’m not sure that really worked. At the opening of Act III a large propeller airplane inched closer and closer to the edge of the stage until I was worried it would fall into the orchestra pit and kill the brass section. John, ever the war nerd, was busy thinking that they must have been very successful brigands to afford what would then have been a brand-new plane.
In terms of stage craft, the whole spectacle was amazing. Each Act opened with a tableau vivant that looked like a beautifully lit photograph. The chorus of children singing Les Voici! was very beautiful, though they all looked like the cherished prodigies they are rather than scruffy orphans. The choreography was nice too, especially in Act II, which is set in a bar and people are dancing the flamenco.
That’s all I really have to say, except that it was enjoyable, even for John, who has been humming Carmen tunes all day. Not me, though. For some reason, the tune that got stuck in my head was “Jingle Bells,” which is what the taxi driver was whistling on the way to the theater.