French Chateau is the Venue for Open Air Performance of The Opera, Carmen


Carmen Performed Outdoors

by Mark W. Suits

George Bizet’s four act Opera, “Carmen,” is among the most popular operas ever written (French Opera in particular). It is full of tunes all but the deaf are likely to recognize. The libretto was written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy and based on a short novel by Prosper Mérimée entitled (Surprise Surprise) “Carmen”. It was slow coming to the stage because producers of that time feared both the raunchy sexual overtones and violence (two ingredients no modern movie will sell without). It first came to stage in L’Opera Comique de Paris. Bizet, laid to rest in the upper part of Pere La Chaise (about 100 yards above Rossini and Chopin), was, like Mozart, a Free Mason and suddenly died after its 33rd performance on June 3rd, 1875, never to know what a standard cornerstone (!) in opera his music would become.

Indeed, perhaps shocking at the time, it seems rather tame today, but no less enjoyable. My own personal, rather limited, opinion concerning masonry, other than a mere historical curiosity which turns up a bit too often, is mimicked by Groucho Marx’s quip “I’d never want to join any club that would accept me as a member”. Love it or hate it (a near taboo to even mention), it is a real historic part of the shadow (occult) fabric of culture as well as politics.

A famous composer (maybe Delius) was once informed that a music critique had died and a certain sum was sought to help bury him. The composer offered double the sum, suggesting to bury two critiques. With this cheerful antidote in mind, it is in no way of interest to judge how high or low the performance, nor any other aspect of the production, as indeed opinion is just that, opinion.

I am shy to suggest any element of this production was uniquely above and beyond solid professional expectations; it is no less safe to say they presented this famous work admirably well. The singing and orchestra was tightly knit and special mention must of course be given to the lead role played by mezzo-soprano Julia Stein. It is no easy thing to sing a role once championed by the likes of the late, great Maria Callas. Julia Stein, a small, rather buxom young woman, gave an admirable performance of everything including the famous tune “L’amour set un oiseau rebel” (Love is a rebellious bird) whence she arrives on the scene setting herself up to be the heartbreaking, wicked sex objective designed to ruin we red-blooded, foolish men.

photo by Mark W. Suits

Great fun in fiction, but not so great fun in real life (been there done that). All the singers were quite good with special “bravo” for the choral singers who do not get their names in fat print but do great work. Wonderful artists! Paris’s Opera Comique is an old fashioned, not very big opera house, designed in the days when amplification did not exist, so it is certainly a different, more intimate experience than “Opera en Plein Air” (Outdoor Opera).

photo by Mark W. Suits

What is certain is that the seats were full and the audience seemed pleased and we were lucky to had lovely weather. To some that is high praise, to others, high criticism, so in the words of a hick farmer once asked directions at an intersection in Tennessee, “you can pick your choice”. The experience of seeing an opera outdoors is very different than in a music hall. You experience a different sort of pleasure. Where we were, it would be difficult to make a precise comment on, for example, the costumes (and other such setting elements) beyond that they were basically in keeping with the period the represented… unlike what might be done by some more stunning avant garde directors such as Peter Sellars, Peter Brook or Robert Wilson.

The amplification renders everything perfectly audible, when the sun goes down, the lights render everything quite visible …just bring an extra sweater since when the sun goes down so does the temperature, plus there was a bit of a gusty breeze. Opera is the original multimedia and there is simply too much to really comment on, but in the outdoors, the entertainment becomes a little like a rock concert. “Opera en Plein Air” is not catering to a theatrical elite nor artistic snobbery, but rather giving a rather good straight forward performance of wonderful Opera war horses (they will not likely ever do risqué vedettes) that a general audience can enjoy in amazing surroundings such as the Chateau de Vincennes.

photo by Mark. W. Suits

Indeed, this brings to mind Kurt Weill who said something to the effect that he was not seeking to break new ground in musical theory (such as his contemporary, Arnold Schoenberg) but rather to find new audiences. This indeed is where the feeling of history, in such locations, adds something above and beyond the artistic value presented. Not only housing kings, this particular chateau has known the likes of Marquise de Sade as well as having hosted the firing squad that put and end of the life of Mata Hari. Somehow Carmen and Mata Hari have something in common! Indeed, the common denominator of all societies is its art, so whatever brings people to see and hear both high or low art deserves praise. As such: viva “Opera en Plein Air” and applause to the multitude of talents involved!

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  1. The Twin Cities have Carmen outdoors this coming week. Mill City Summer Opera, I’m sure it will lack a bit to the Paris production; but what the heck. I’ve been to Wolftrap in Vienna, Va. for outdoor Opera and have to admit it was very enjoyable. Especially nice if you want to impress a lady friend.

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