Le French May brings Bizet’s classic opera closer to Hong Kong, writes William Lane
The romantic allure of Seville, a beautiful gypsy and a sizzling plot of love, seduction, betrayal and murder. With all these elements, not to mention the bullfighters and smugglers, it’s hardly surprising that Carmen remains one of the world’s most popular operas almost 150 years after its penning. Indeed, it’s timeless. But with such a well-loved work, so comes a different challenge: how to bring it to life in a distinctive way.
For the Le French May production of Georges Bizet’s opera, this responsibility lies with legendary French director Philippe Arlaud, someone who is well-versed in the nuances of Carmen. He directed the opera in Baden-Baden, Germany, in 2010, but, as he explains, that production differed significantly from what he stages in Hong Kong this fortnight. “I try to find a dialectic between a work and a city, a theatre tradition and a modern public,” says Arlaud. “That means I would not do the same Carmen in Paris, Seville, Tokyo, Santa Fe or Hong Kong. The new opera is a sum of reciprocal influences through time and space.”
In Hong Kong, all these factors translate into an aesthetically vibrant, seductively skewed creation featuring an international, star-studded cast including Israeli-born mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham in the role of Carmen, French tenor Jean-Pierre Furlan as Don Jose as well as the Shanghai Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Pionnier. “The production in Baden-Baden was built around the vision
of Don Jose in the book as Merimee, with a process of flashback,” says Arlaud. “In Hong Kong, the production will be more linear
and follow the libretto by Meilhac and Halevy. It will be more colourful. The acting is more sensual and more raw, erotic and cruel.”
Apart from his directorial role, Arlaud also takes on the roles of stage, set and lighting designer. “Like many of my colleagues, Wernicke, Ponnelle, Wilson, Freyer, Herrmann to name a few, I work as arranger and writer, and I bring together technology, the arts, people, tastes in order of opera performance – a total art,” he says. Perhaps the most unique element of this production is Arlaud’s modern set design.
He uses a revolving stage and sets ‘an elliptical wall above a circle’ that allows countless combinations to correspond to the different scenes, paving the way for super-fast set changes. “I do not use the revolving stage in a traditional way – ie two or three sets on a cheese platter,” says the director. “I use it primarily in conjunction with the music and it allows me to get zoom effects, expansion or shrinkage of space framing and scenic effects.”
Arlaud has also envisioned a vibrant aesthetic palette for the production. As opposed to his very ‘black and white’ conception in the Baden-Baden production, the Le French May Carmen sees the daylight world (acts one and four) showered in a rich ochre and red hue, while the world of the night (acts two and three) take on a metallic and mineral blue and grey atmosphere.
Ultimately, Arlaud is hoping a message shines through. “[This production of Carmen] represents risks, challenges, commitments and happiness, to come here to defend the idea of freedom so dear to the French!” he says. “It is painful to kill Carmen, probably because we are also afraid to kill the libeté that is within us.”