Freedom-loving and Magnificent Carmen in Astana!
Everyone knows the name of this gypsy. She herself knows firsthand what a triumph is: directors of opera, drama, film projects, and ballet masters have repeatedly turned to the story of Prosper Merimee, the creator of the freedom-loving Carmen. After he saw this opera, P. Tchaikovsky’s assessment was, “It will be the most popular opera in the world.” G. Bizet’s contemporary was absolutely right. After 142 years, it remains just as interesting, fresh and in demand by the audience. The premiere of G. Bizet’s opera Carmen will take place at the Astana Opera on November 17 and 18.
According to the plot, a beautiful and passionate gypsy, who believes in fate and her cards that predict her death, is in the center of events. The cigarette factory employee Carmen influences the way of life of the people around her. Now, handsome Don Jose is no longer a brave military man, but smugglers’ accomplice, sensitive Micaela will lose her lover, and the toreador Escamillo will perish during a bullfight.
Carmen is the composer’s last opera. It has passed the thorny path to fame and world opera houses. It is considered the culmination of G. Bizet’s work and his life fiasco. According to critics, at the premiere at the Parisian Opéra-Comique, the audience has accepted the first two acts well, the third – with restraint, during the fourth there was an icy silence in the auditorium. The libretto of the opera was rebuked for vulgarity, its music – for excessive ‘scholarliness’, colourlessness, lack of romance and refinement. As a result, the opera was declared ‘immoral’. It ended up as a complete failure. All this had a serious impact on G. Bizet and had a fatal effect on his health. After exactly three months, on June 3, 1875, Georges Bizet passed away at the age of 36. Carmen’s true grandeur was appreciated only after his death.
Music Director and Conductor of the production at the Astana Opera is a winner of numerous international competitions, Honoured Worker of Kazakhstan, Principal Conductor of the Astana Opera Alan Buribayev, Stage Director – Lorenzo Amato. The production team includes outstanding contemporary Set Designer Ezio Frigerio, Costume Designer – the Academy Award winner Franca Squarciapino, Lighting Designer – Jacopo Pontani, Projections Designer – Sergio Metalli. Assistant Costume Designers – Danielle Boutard, Hélène Kritikos, Arassel Dosmuratova. Choirmaster – Honoured Worker of Kazakhstan Yerzhan Dautov.
Difficult task of making this production the pinnacle of all the productions of the opera Carmen, which were presented in the world to this day, lies on their shoulders. To create it in such a way so that it is in demand not only by the listeners in our country, but also to attract the attention of the international theatrical community.
People are hard at work in every corner of the opera house…
Welcome to the Backstage
All that is hidden from the audience’s eyes is at the backstage. It looks like a real magical city of masters, where set pieces are built, costumes are sewn, hats and shoes are made. The production of the opera Carmen stands out from all the previous ones due to its scale and realism. It will take the viewers to the middle of the XIX century Seville – a sunny city in Spain with cozy streets and a square with rich architecture. It is here that Carmen, along with other tobacco factory workers, will bathe sensually in the fountain, attracting the soldiers’ attention.
The set changes in this magnificent four-act opera reach a record number, and all of them are very quick. The Head of the Artistic and Production Complex Victor Carare says that in the third act, the action begins in the mountains, the audience will see 12-meter (!) set pieces, and in a few minutes 50 stage machinists will have to replace the massive structures representing the mountainous terrain with the central city square.
“The technological process of building the sets is unique in that we must ensure its highest quality, determined by exclusivity and durability. Their average lifecycle is 15-18 years. Two decades ago these terms were much shorter, but now we adhere to the newest technologies and use strong materials: fiberglass, aluminum, metal, which allow us to increase this period. Video projections and lighting effects will be absolutely stunning in this production. Jacopo Pontani (Italy) and Karim Ramash (Kazakhstan) are great professionals in their field. They will create bright, interesting effects. Horses, which have already appeared on the stage of our opera house more than once will give a special colour to the production,” shared Victor Carare.
Highly artistic full-size rigid sets, which are not painted on canvases and in which every detail is important, are used in many productions of the Astana Opera. For example, over the years, the rain destroys the bottom of the foundations of the amazingly beautiful Spanish houses. The viewers will get to see these fine details too. Even so, in order to convey the atmosphere of this historical period, specialists needed to choose the correct color palette, use special sprays and apply other prop-building tricks. To create even more realistic performance, video projections that give perspective to the city come into play. Landscapes of Spanish nature are revealed to the audience in the background. The author of all this splendour is the well-known in the world of art eighty-year-old set designer Ezio Frigerio. Despite his considerable age, he never ceases to study every day. That is probably why all his productions are fascinating and inimitable.
To the Gypsy Camp Right Now
Gypsy costumes are perhaps the first to attract a look among all the variety of different outfits created at the Astana Opera Costume Shop. Yellow, red, green, blue, it seems like the Academy Award winner Franca Squarciapino decided to use all the colours and their shades in this production.
“A very sharp transition from summer to winter is presented here, so there are enough dark colours here too. However, in the tobacco factory scene the women are somewhat exposed, they are shown by the costume designer in corsets and shirts, for which we used pastel colours. All scenes have different palettes, there is no prevailing colour; it is always different,” explained the Assistant Costume Designer Arassel Dosmuratova.
The artists of the opera house will wear 400 costumes; they will have to change their clothes twice. Hats will complement their looks. Not all of the summer and winter headdresses for city ladies and soldiers are ready; they still need to be decorated. The craftspeople say that the hats are very comfortable; they are a pleasure to make and try on.
Winter costumes are made of heavy fabric, but such massive coats, decorated with braid, tailcoats, and ponchos do not make the singers’ work difficult. The historical period is taken into account at the costume shop, that is, the middle of the XIX century cut is applied.
“We create special underdresses for the female singers. The corsets are slightly cinched in at the waist and do not affect the respiratory system. All the clothes are soft, light and comfortable,” adds Arassel Dosmuratova.
It is a fourth production of Carmen for Franca Squarciapino. The designer loves classics very much, and she really likes the director’s vision for the production at the Astana Opera in the classical style. She even brought original XIX century tailcoats to use as an example for her Kazakhstani colleagues. Her assistants say that, in spite of the fact that it is customary to make theatrical costumes with ‘dickeys’ (false shirt-fronts), it is better for the artists’ comfort to make real tailcoats with full pockets and shirts, so that they can get into character faster.
Young artists of the Astana Opera Children’s Studio take part in the performance. They attend fittings and diligently learn their parts.
It is known that F. Squarciapino created real bullfighters’ costumes. For this, she studied detailed information about them, visited old workshops, where seamstresses embroidered such costumes by hand with golden thread. Therefore, you can expect with confidence for the scene of the bullfighters’ parade to be bright.
The Magic of Painstaking Work
Here they do not work, but rather create – the Astana Opera Prop Shop is a place where miracles happen, just as they should. It seems as if these guns are about to shoot, the lamps will illuminate the dark room with a bright light, and fresh milk will be poured from the row of clay jugs.
The masters of the prop shop team have many interesting work projects to their name. However, the prop masters’ attention is especially drawn to the opera Carmen. All the props here were created according to the sketches that reflect the XIX century era. There are many scenes associated with the use of household items in the opera. Coupled with the sets, household items will create the image of sunny Seville.
“Unusually shaped dishes, jugs, vases immediately surprised us, as soon as we saw the sketches. They were made using the papier-mâché technology. Though, at first, molds were cast, stretched out in clay, filled with gypsum, and only then papier-mâché was molded,” says the prop artist, sculptor Dauren Omarov, “fake guns are identical to the real ones in terms of manufacturing technology: wood, metal and chasing, and if you add a special mechanism, they can even shoot. The lamps are made of wood, but decorated to look like they are made of old brass with rust on the iron inserts.”
Set Designer Ezio Frigerio checks whether the prop artists used all the shades correctly, sometimes adding his own touches. The scene of the fair turned out to be very interesting. Everything here is like in the real Spanish market – hats and bags, fruits and vegetables are presented in abundance. Bags are made with special scuffs to look natural under the stage lighting, otherwise they risk becoming glossy and ‘breaking out’ from the general style of the production when hit with the theatrical light.
Bundles, trafficked by smugglers to other countries through the port, smell of the sea. They are tightly wrapped; the surface is very dirty from having been hidden many times. In reality, the bundles are filled with foam rubber, covered with burlap, tightly wrapped with strong rope and treated with a special liquid that preserves their shape.
The artists need to get used to these props. During rehearsals, any of these items can be found uncomfortable for them, so there is still a process of finalizing the details.
Character Creation Is the Most Difficult Thing
Sets, props and costumes without a doubt create the spirit of the era, but with the artists’ appearance onstage true magic is born, and energy exchange with the audience takes place. The ability to create a correct interpretation of their characters is considered to be the most difficult thing for many singers.
Let us remind that the opera Carmen is based on Prosper Mérimée’s novella. The writers Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy created the libretto filled with drama, deep emotional contrasts, three-dimensional characters that are in many ways different from their literary prototypes.
Specialists note that Don Jose is presented in the story as a grim, proud and stern robber, but in the opera he acquired other characteristics. Here he is shown as a simple, honest, but quick-tempered and weak-willed person. Laureate of many international competitions Artem Golubev (Russia) and the soloist of the Romanian National Opera Marius Vlad, whose repertoire is very complex and extensive, are preparing this part. Marius Vlad has performed at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Teatro Massimo in Palermo (Italy), Melbourne Opera (Australia), the Staatsoper Berlin, the Theater Freiburg (Germany) and many other opera houses around the world. He collaborated with Philharmoniker Hamburg, Münchner Philharmoniker, Staatskappelle Berlin and many other orchestras. He worked with such famous conductors as Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Antonio Pappano and others.
The authors of the libretto introduced Micaela, a peasant girl who did not exist in the short story. Incidentally, Kazakhstani opera stars Maira Mukhamedkyzy, Saltanat Akhmetova and Alfiya Karimova are preparing this part. According to musicologists, a devoted and loving peasant woman creates a sharp contrast to the seductive and insidious Carmen, whose image has also undergone significant changes. Cunning, thieving efficiency – these characteristics of Carmen from P. Merimee’s novella were removed. G. Bizet ennobled her character, emphasizing the directness and independence of actions. His Carmen is the embodiment of female beauty and charm, passionate love of freedom and courage.
Dina Khamzina will perform the role of Carmen not for the first time. The singer says that she always tries to find something new in her character.
“Once my Carmen was a naive girl, a hooligan, now I see her as a completely different, wiser person. She cannot love anyone, as otherwise she will lose the most important thing for her – her freedom. When Carmen comes out and sings the famous Habanera, everyone is paying attention to her, except Jose. My heroine provokes, tries to seduce him, and, in the end, she succeeds,” says Dina Khamzina.
This will be a role debut for Tatyana Vitsinskaya, although she has already performed Carmen in a concert version at the Teatro San Mauro in the Italian city of San Donà di Piave. Barseg Tumanyan, Sundet Baigozhin and Talgat Mussabaev are preparing the part of Escamillo.
Music Is Our Everything
Principal Conductor of the Astana Opera, Honoured Worker of Kazakhstan Alan Buribayev is the Music Director and Conductor of this production. It is known that the Maestro knows more than five languages, including French. He helps artists to make the right accents, at times explaining the meaning of French words.
G. Bizet created this opera with conversational dialogues; later Ernest Guiraud replaced them with recitatives. Maestro Buribayev has turned to E. Guiraud’s version: the characters easily sing their arias, without being distracted by colloquial texts.
“Carmen has already become a cultural myth. It is one of the best operas in the world. I conducted it many times in Europe and Asia, but this will be my first production of the opera Carmen in the classic vein. In Latin, the name Carmen means ‘a riddle’, it is very important to try to make it with great taste. Much depends on the stage director, on his fine regard to music, to the source. We have already worked with Lorenzo Amato before, staging G. Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, so I am sure that the production will be at a high level. We approached the production very attentively. The singers perform the score written by G. Bizet from the first to the last note, with inclusions of recitatives created by his friend E. Guiraud. He wrote recitatives for the performance in Vienna, next one after the premiere in Paris, fulfilling the author’s posthumous will. The day before his death, G. Bizet himself signed a contract with the Wiener Staatsoper to write the recitatives, since it would be unusual for Viennese singers to speak dramatic dialogues in French between musical numbers (in Vienna the main language is German). This would cause the listeners’ misunderstanding, unlike the Opéra-Comique in Paris, where conversational dialogues would become the singers’ calling card. I chose E. Guiraud’s version, because, in my opinion, he wrote excellent recitatives that successfully connect G. Bizet’s musical numbers without violating the composer’s style and the style of the French opera of the second half of the XIX century. At the same time, which is very important, they are the moving force for the action. As a musician, my choice was influenced to a large extent by the desire for the music not to be interrupted anywhere,” said the Maestro Alan Buribayev.
The music of this opera is so beautiful that several ballets, all sorts of instrumental, vocal and even pop music arrangements were created on its basis. For example, in 1943 USA, Oscar Hammerstein II wrote a Broadway musicalCarmen Jones, where G. Bizet’s music was preserved with a different text. In the Astana Opera it will be the most authentic Carmen, just as it was written by G. Bizet and in this lies its uniqueness.
The greatest reward for artists and other production team members is the audience’s applause. The entire collective of the opera house: the creative team, the stage machinists, production workshop masters, costumers, make-up artists and many others behind the scenes await the audience’s reaction with bated breath. Let us hope that the fatal beauty from the tobacco factory will impress the capital. Furthermore, let us wish this production a long life.
The performance will take place with the support of the opera house’s General Sponsor Halyk Bank of Kazakhstan JSC.