Saturday, October 24, 2009

The National Theater - Carmen - 10/21/09

Director: Josef Bednarik
Conductor: Zbynek Muller
Carmen: Jolana Fogasova
Don Jose: Valentin Prolat
Escamillo: Martin Barta
Michaela: Dana Buresova

After a dreadfully drawn-out Rinaldo, what better way to renew my love for the fascinating art of opera than with everybody's favorite gypsy: Carmen? Boasting an irresistible heroine, infectious melodies and a plot involving love, jealousy and the ill-fated collision of two opposite worlds, Bizet's masterpiece has kept audiences enthralled for well over a century now and is not likely to disappear into obscurity anytime soon. This was also the perfect opportunity for me to check out Prague's National Theater whose imposing structure stands on the eastern end of the Legil Bridge.
While the exterior is dark, probably because of the heavy traffic in the area, the entrance was pleasant and the auditorium featured attractive gilded Greek columns and ornaments standing out against a dark red background. The sold-out crowd was again an even mix or Praguers and foreigners, the latter probably there as much to enjoy the actual performance as to have a look at the venue (Nobody will have me believe that there were many die-hard Rinaldo fans at the Estates Theater the night before).

The first vision of the opera was on grim prison walls that would come back at the beginning of each act, eventually opening on each set. The various décors were rather sober, but costumes and accessories would add brightly colorful touches here and there. After the minimalist off-white tones of the first act, the second one was a vivid explosion of red and black Spanish outfits for the rambunctious tavern scene. When hiding on the mountains, it was back to sobriety with dark hats and leather coats (and a bicycle for Carmen), and the finale was back to basic black and white. Visually and thematically, it definitely worked.
But no matter how well the various elements came together, all eyes and ears were predictably on the reckless femme fatale, and Jolana Fogasona for sure displayed enough blatantly carefree demeanor and soaring vocal power to steadily carry the demanding role on her robust shoulders. Although she first appeared in a virginal flowing white dress, her sensuous moves and shameless flirting quickly made it abundantly clear that there was absolutely nothing even remotely chaste or subdued about her. She sang with fully controlled force and virtuosity, intensely asserting her fiercely independent spirit and ferociously pacing the stage when things were not going her way. As Don Jose, Valentin Prolat was effectively expressing how deeply shocked he was at being led astray and utterly unable to do anything about it. His rival for Carmen's affections, Martin Barta exuded all the insufferable narcissism traditionally associated with the bullfighter Escamillo. But the star the evening turned out to be Dana Buresova, who as sweet Michaela brought down the house with just a couple of impeccably high-flying arias.
Some of the production's choices were particularly welcome, such as getting rid of the spoken parts. It made the story flow more seamlessly, did not deprive the audience of any information, and we all saved time. Hurray! Others, however, were less judicious: I'm not sure why there was so much smoke blowing so often, and the insertions of the ballets routines were for the most part perplexing. But it was all in all a thoroughly enjoyable evening, which even ended surprisingly when, after a bit of water-boarding and the fatal stab, Carmen's dead body ended up in... a fountain, making for an unexpected but literally splashing finale.

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