Olé! A ‘Carmen’ supreme

by Ayako Takahashi

Special To The Japan Times

The heroine of French composer Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” is one of the most famous roles in opera, but it’s also one of the most difficult of all to carry off well.

An artist playing the ill-fated gypsy seductress in this 1875 masterpiece must be able to move in a wild and untamed way, yet be captivating at every turn — and possessed of a superb mezzo-soprano voice. All that, while capturing the audience’s hearts, means the bar is set very high for those rising to the challenge.

However, Ketevan Kemoklidze, the young Georgian star making her debut as the Spanish femme fatale in the current production by the New National Theatre, Tokyo, excels in every way. Stunning in her looks and her acting, the elegant singer is fluid and kaleidoscopic in every nuance; one moment draping herself languorously around a suitor, and the next asserting herself, or dancing with passionate intensity.

All in all, she literally makes sport of men (and the audience too). Her gestures and expressions are like a textbook example of how the game of love is played. And her slightly nasal, quirky, yet not-too-heavy voice is a good fit for this powerful role.

The songs always give a sense of Carmen’s emotions: anger, joy, determination. In the final scene, with tragedy hanging in the air, even as she is seized by distress she remains aloof, and her seeming acceptance of her fate makes this so deeply impressive. Kemoklidze is more than just a singer; she is a marvelous all-round performer who truly brings her role to life on the stage.

Gaston Rivero as lovestruck José, who deserts both his beloved and the army for cigarette-factory girl Carmen, sings in a beautiful, resounding tenor even as he is eclipsed from Carmen’s heart by the bullfighter Escamillo (Dmitry Ulyanov) — an alpha male who marks his entry with the world-famous “Toreador Song.”

Then Rivero uses his acting skill to bring a fearful reality to José’s duel scene with imposing Escamillo — and to cast a shadow over his brilliant singing as he expresses the tragedy of this man who stabs his true love to death in a fit of passion. Additionally, the cast — singing in French with Japanese supertitles — features fine performances from, among others, Rie Hamada as the graceful and ladylike Micaëla and Kasumi Shimizu as Carmen’s friend, Mercedes.

As directed by Hitoshi Uyama, this is not Regietheater but an orthodox staging located as its creator intended in a 19th-century Seville depicted realistically and with care. In the stately set design by Jiro Shima, the walls on both sides of the stage are styled like abandoned buildings whose atmosphere seems to alter with the scenes; while the lighting by Yuji Sawada is dramatic, changing in hue and intensity with the drama’s moods.

Particularly worthy of mention is the way the aural elements of solos, choruses and the music from the orchestra pit all match, down to the smallest detail, with the visual movements on stage, not merely tracing an overarching story. Ainars Rubikis conducts the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra in a performance full of highly variegated tempo and emphasis, creating a brilliant soundscape for this emotive work.

“Carmen” may have been Bizet’s final work before he died of a heart attack at age 36, but this production emanates a special and poignant joie de vivre conjured by its delightful cast, brilliant visuals and sound.

The Feb. 1 performance of “Carmen” at the New National Theatre, Tokyo starts at 2 p.m.; for tickets, call 03-5352-9999. This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.