Martin Kusej´s Carmen is a co-production between the Berlin State Opera and the Paris Châtelet (shown in 2007).
In short: This is not a Carmen for traditionalists.
The entire opera is a flash-back starting with Don José´s on-stage execution. Don José is unstable from the beginning and doomed to destruction. Carmen does not play an essential part in this.
The production emphasizes sex, death and violence. Basically everyone is killed: Micaëla by a stray shot. Carmen in front of a white-clad and white-painted audience in front of which also the dead Escamillo (killed in the arena) is carried. And finally Don José in the first scene. Unfortunately, Kusej couldn´t help throw in some predictable symbols such as a red skarf as well.
Kusej´s minimalist, grey concrete staging with a quadrangle-turning-execution-pad-turning-whorehouse provides an austere background for this updated dark interpretation. Carmen is obviously a prostitute, dancing away in the basement with her underwear-clad colleagues surrounded by the soldiers. The rest of the story basically tells itself.
As engaging theater it works 100% , most importantly because Rolando Villazón and Marina Domashenko are superb.
Marina Domashenko is simply a superb Carmen, a beautiful dark mezzo as well as a compelling stage presence. It makes complete sense that José would fall in love with her and it´s equally obvious why she tires of him. Domashenko is deservedly gaining world-wide recognition with this Carmen and I do not think I have heard a current Carmen superior to hers.
Rolando Villazón´s Don José (the first of his career) is a desperate maniac verging on mental instability from the start. As always, he identifies 100% with his character, which also suits his hyperenergetic, neurotic acting well.
Alexander Vinogradov´s Escamillo is the only rather weak point in the cast - he simply looks like a teenager and it doesn´t quite make sense why this Carmen would be fascinated by him. Norah Amsellem is dramatically a convincing Micaëla. She has a clear soprano, though the vibrato is much too heavy for my taste, making her sound out of tune.
The orchestra under Daniel Barenboim is engaging throughout.
The London Carmen with Jonas Kaufmann and Anna Caterina Antonacci seems upcoming as well. Which to prefer must surely be a matter of taste. Though the London Zambello production does not appeal to me, the singers very much do. Though I´d suppose this to have the slight edge. Lovers of Carmen most probably will want both.
Rolando Villazón and Marina Domashenko in the final scene:
Carmen persuading Don José to free her (Villazon/Domashenko):
Highlights from the production:
The bottom line (scale 1-5, 3=average):
Rolando Villazón: 5
Marina Domashenko: 5
Norah Amsellem: 3
Alexander Vinogradov: 2
Martin Kusej´s production: 4-5
Daniel Barenboim: 4-5
Overall impression: 4-5