Dive into the Baths of Caracalla with the Best of Bizet
Carmen, the opéra comique composed by Georges Bizet during the late nineteenth century, was revived in the sublime setting of Rome’s UNESCO World Heritage Site thermæ: the Baths of Caracalla. The libretto — written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée —portrays the story of the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier who is seduced by the impetuous gypsy Carmen. The Argentinian director Valentina Carrasco moved the opera’s original setting from Spain to the border between Mexico and the United States, in a spectacularly overwhelming mise-en-scène.
The 2018 staging of Carmen unfolded in a modern-day cigarette factory close to the wall across the frontier. The set by Samal Black and lighting design by Peter van Praet transformed the Ancient Roman ruins into canyons, American deserts, Mount Rushmore, illuminated signs, and depictions of the Calavera Catrina (Mexico’s image of Death known as the “Elegant Skull”). The climax of Mexican folklore was achieved with the conclusive corrida substituted by the celebrations of the Día de Muertos with the stupendous costumes by Luis Carvalho.
The depictions of proletarian life, debauchery and rebellion, coalesced with the music’s melodies, representing the characters’ emotions and suffering. The enthralling harmonies came into being through the remarkable direction of the American conductor Ryan McAdams, who blended exquisitely the orchestra’s music with the performers’ interpretation. The talented cast featured Ketevan Kemoklidze (Carmen), Andeka Gorrotxategui (Don José), Louise Kwong (Micaëla), Simón Orfila (Escamillo), Alessio Verna (Dancairo), Daniela Cappiello (Frasquita), Anna Pennisi (Mercédès), Pietro Picone (Remendado), Roberto Lorenzi (Zuniga), Timofei Baranov (Morelès). The theatrical production was further enriched by the Coro del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, directed by Roberto Gabbiani, and the choreographies by Erika Rombaldoni and Massimiliano Volpini.
This production was previously represented during the summer season of 2017, but has not grown old. If a year ago President Trump discussed “building a wall,” in 2018 his anti-immigrant Weltanschauung not only increased — separating alien parents from their children in the name of Nativism — but was also emulated by governments of other countries. It was particularly emblematic to witness this staging of Carmen in the Caput Mundi, exactly when Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte adopted populistic demonization of immigrants, rerouting a ship with over 600 immigrants to Spain.
The vivacity of rhythms of Carmen’s most famous operatic arias — Habanera and the Toreador Song — and the tragic power of its characters, thus became the perfect match to echo the contemporary, worldwide xenophobia, leading to the loss of many lives.
The Specter of Death was de facto an unspoken protagonist in this adaptation of Bizet’s opera. Throughout the performance, a mute young girl dressed in white appeared on stage, as if she were Carmen’s candid doppelgänger, foretelling the demise of the protagonist. Also the silence of the ouverture projected audiences into an eerie atmosphere of eternal rest, just as the noise of immigrants at the border, inveighing against the “hijo de puta” who tore their families apart.
The despair, portrayed in the opera comique that bridges into verismo, became a powerful allegory of departures through Pre-Colombian culture. Carrasco’s Mesoamerican adaptation of Carmen, tackling social injustice within the sublunary ambiance of Caracalla, dauntlessly epitomized the Latin expression “Ad Astra per aspera,” “through hardship to the stars.”
All Photos by Yasuko Kageyama-Teatro dell’Opera di Roma