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Review: Carmen at the Dubai Opera

In the #MeToo age, Bizet’s iconic piece touching on toxic masculinity is more relevant than ever

Today, the piece is rendered more poignant for the real-world parallels it draws.

Georges Bizet’s classic love triangle scandalised the public when it was first performed in 1875. More than 140 years later, Carmen is as relevant as ever, as the Armenian National Academic Theatre Opera and Orchestra brings it to life on the stage at the Dubai Opera.

Opera aficionados and even those with a limited knowledge of the medium would be familiar with the story of passion gone awry. Set in Southern Spain, it depicts the downfall of Don José, a naïve soldier who falls for the seductive gypsy Carmen. He abandons his childhood sweetheart, Micaëla, and deserts from his post only to have Carmen choose the matador Escamillo over him. Unable to win back Carmen’s love, Don José kills her in a fit of jealousy.

When Bizet debuted the work, it shocked for its depiction of proletariat life, immorality and for breaking form with the conventions of operatic tradition – most notably through having a major character die tragically on stage. Today, the piece is rendered more poignant for the real-world parallels it draws. In the #MeToo age when the concept of consent has never been more topical, Carmen is elevated beyond mere entertainment.

Today, the piece is rendered more poignant for the real-world parallels it draws.

Under the direction of Armen Meliksetyan, the leering soldiers trying to convince Micaëla to wait with them for the man she’s in love with are rendered even more creepy. Even the fiery Carmen has the audience’s sympathy as the men all paw at her in an attempt to win her affection. We feel the discomfort this strong woman doesn’t exhibit. The final scene, a departure from the original work, is filled with so much passion that our hearts are in our throats as we watch her being killed.

Conductor Christopher Ocasek’s emotional approach very successfully lends a softness to the tension of this drama, juxtaposed cleverly with the angularity of stage designer Avetis Barseghian’s industrial and modern set. This is reinforced by the pastoral elements costume designer Cristine Avetisian blends with an avant garde aesthetic and the trademark reds to produce a visual spectacle in support of the drama.

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Carmen remains one of the world’s best-loved operas, and principals Karine Babajanyan (Carmen), Hovhannes Ayvazyan (Don José) and Gevorg Hakobyan (Escamillo) more than do justice to its passion and drama, but it’s the two smugglers who stole the show in the opening night performance. Barring insignificant timing issues, the music is rendered beautifully, and the popular movements including the Habanera aria and the March of the Toreadors go down a treat.

It’s been said the measure of great art is its ability to be universally relevant, which would explain the enduring popularity of Carmen. In 2018, however, this work is probably more important than it’s ever been.

Carmen is performed at the Dubai Opera until September 8. The Armenian National Academic Theatre Opera and Orchestra is led by Mo Constantine Orbelian, General & Artistic Director of the Yerevan Opera. 

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