Constantinos Carydis will shortly make his Covent Garden debut in a revival of Francesca Zambello’s production of Carmen. He kindly made time to speak to me concerning this and other musical matters. The conversation took place in a mixture of English, German, and very occasional French. I have therefore been a little more active editorially than would be my usual practice, translating the foreign language sections into English, occasionally retaining a foreign word where it might be useful to do so, and eliminating some repetition and explication. I began by asking how everything was going during his first visit to the house.
CC: It is all very nice, really nice. Everyone is very open, all of my colleagues with whom I work. I am enjoying it very much.
MB: And have you worked in London before, with another company or with one of the orchestras?
CC: No, this is the first time. I have visited London many times, of course, but only as a tourist.
MB: Quite a lot of your work has been in Germany, hasn’t it?
CC: Yes, in Germany, Austria, France, Italy…
MB: And Carmen in Munich, at the Theater am Gärtnerplatz, I believe?
CC: Yes, I conducted a new production at the Gärtnerplatz theatre and then also at the Staatsoper, in the older Lina Wertmüller staging.
MB: So you come here with quite some experience of the work already. How do you find the production here at Covent Garden?
CC: Honestly, I haven’t seen the production here before, because to watch something on DVD, you don’t see exactly what something is like.
MB: At best, a cameraman’s – or cameramen’s – view. You can’t look where you like, at least with most technology as it stands.
CC: Exactly. I don’t feel that I can understand a production until I see it, am involved in it, myself. I would like to have the opportunity to see it step by step here, to see how it works. It comes much more alive (lebendig) that way.
MB: I’ve seen this production once before and it put me very much in mind of West End theatre: the emphasis upon spectacle, the experience of the ‘show’. There’s a lot of theatre, a lot for people to see. And of course, one of these performances is going to be screened across the country, so you will have a huge audience…
CC: Yes, it will be an opportunity for people who cannot go to the opera, who have maybe never been to an opera performance, to go perhaps for the first time.
MB: Do you think Carmen is a good piece for people seeing opera for the first time?
CC: Yes, I do. It’s perhaps the most popular piece, certainly one of the most popular pieces, perhaps with the exception of Zauberflöte.
MB: At least in Germany... For people who haven’t seen or heard Carmen before, what will be the main points?
CC: The first impression of the opera will be that they know the popular melodies. They will have heard them on film or in adverts, or as excerpts. Then there will be big choral scenes. And of course the music is extremely direct. It is popular because it speaks straight to the heart.
MB: It’s not philosophical?
CC: It is philosophical but in a different way.
MB: So nothing that will frighten someone off? Not like Wagner?
CC: Yes, not so intellectual. But the dramaturgy, the construction of the piece, is wonderful.
MB: And the idea of fate…
CC: Yes, of course.
MB: And thinking of philosophy, a great philosopher, Nietzsche, used Carmen to show what opera might be, as opposed to Wagner. Something to dance to, which one probably wouldn’t think of with Tristan… This time, are you using the dialogue or the recitatives?
CC: The dialogue. Most performances do now. It is closer to the original idea of opera comique, a very important element of the theatre. Also, there are many elements here of a middle way between singing and speaking. Whether one sings or speaks, one must always concentrate very much here on the words. The text is always very important – not only the language itself but the meaning. This bridge is fascinating for me, between spoken text and grand opéra, this place in between.
MB: And it is a very realistic opera of course. You don’t have a character taking ten minutes to voice an emotion whilst the action stops.
CC: Very realistic. That is probably another reason why it is so popular: people can identify with the characters. They can find parts of themselves in the characters, whether dark sides or bright sides. It is a great quality of the piece.
MB: And Carmen herself, for someone who has never seen the opera, how would you describe her?
CC: For me, Carmen is a self-destructive character. We see that at the end, of course. I don’t know if she wants to die, but that possibility is there all along in her life. She is a fatalistic woman. And I think self-destructive people have these extremes in their lives. They have very nice, charming sides, and a side that is darker, unfathomable (abgründig). Everything that seems frivolous, light, on the surface, comes from a very deep feeling.
MB: Which is again similar to something Nietzsche extolled: the Greeks, he said, being superficial – out of profundity. One can see what might have attracted him to Carmen.
CC: Exactly. And I think that, all the time, this discrepancy between surface and what lies below, between lightness and that which is abgründig, one has to manage the balance between them. Actually, there is no balance, because all the time it is changing. There is never for me a moment when you can say: Carmen is like that or the situation is like that. And she doesn’t realise why she changes: it happens.
MB: She doesn’t reflect, then?
CC: Everything is for the moment. She is very intuitive.
MB: Why does she choose Escamillo?
CC: I don’t know whether I can answer the question. Perhaps it is more comfortable for her not to have a man who is similar to her, like Don José. He also has a dark side, is complex. Escamillo is a more normal person. But she loves Don José really. For me, it is quite clear in the harmony.
MB: The music tells you the real story?
CC: Yes. When Carmen says, ‘Ah, je t’aime Escamillo, je t’aime,’ every time the tonality moves away from its normal focus. It is perhaps a way for Bizet to say: she is lying when she says, ‘I love Escamillo’. The tonality is not so well established (begründet). Bizet is saying: no, she loves Don José; it is uncomfortable.
MB: The sort of subtlety in the music, then, that might have appealed both to Wagner and Brahms, both of whom thought highly of the work. As you say, its realism helps with popularity, it must be quite a long way the most popular in French. Far more so than say, Pelléas, which will never have that popular appeal.
CC: The whole story, Maeterlinck’s story, is so very different. It is much more difficult to understand. And people can identify much more easily with the characters in Carmen.
MB: Identifying with Mélisande might be rather difficult… And you are thinking with symbols. Debussy of course did write a lot of music concerned with Spain, as did Ravel. And it used to be said, somewhat unfairly, that most of the best Spanish music was written by Frenchmen. But the location, Seville is very important for the drama of Carmen.
CC: And the sense of folklore, but not in a touristic way. The instrumentation is very fine…
MB: Very clear?
CC: Yes, and very subtle. It is not always the real sound of something, more suggestive of it, the atmosphere: the Spanish music is not always in the foreground, but there whilst something else is going on.
MB: Another composer whose music you have conducted a great deal in the opera house is Mozart. Do you find any similarities here? The realism perhaps?
CC: And the simplicity of the music, which then goes deep beneath the surface. The ambivalence in the characters too: you never know exactly where the darkness is, and where the light. They are human beings. Also, the instrumentation: so fine, so simple, and so effective.
MB: Everything is there for a reason. You hear a clarinet, and you know or at least feel what it means, likewise the tonality.
MB: And you have also conducted Gluck. There is a DVD from Stuttgart of Alceste. So dramatically truthful a composer – and work…
CC: Very much. He wrote, when composing the second, French version of Alceste, that he hadn’t slept whilst at work, because he was so committed to the piece – and I think I can hear that in the music. It is honest music, a part of him, of his soul.
MB: The truthfulness I find inspiring, and cutting down the music to what is essential, without show or display, just as his librettist, Calazbigi wrote in the famous preface to the Italian version of Alceste.
CC: He wanted everything to be there for the drama.
MB: You feel that it is a way to present, to make alive ancient Greek drama in the modern world.
CC: Yes, it brings alive the characters, the drama, for today.
MB: Again, it is easy to see why Wagner approved. Have you conducted any Wagner yet?
CC: No, but I would like to try.
MB: Anything in particular?
CC: For me, Tristan is one of the most inspiring works of all, but I’d like to explore other works too. Tristan above all though.
MB: I can understand that. I often find it a work difficult to speak about; it is such a thing-in-itself (Ding an sich).
CC: Precisely. And sometimes we can speak too much about music; it is there in itself. If we can explain the music completely, we do not need the music. It is sometimes better to listen.
MB: Just to return, though, to Carmen, what about the singers with whom you are working?
CC: I like them very much.
MB: Christine Rice as Carmen, for example: such a versatile singer.
CC: Yes, she is wonderful. And it is a young cast.
MB: … which is good for Carmen…
CC: Yes, they are all great singers and a joy to work with.
Carmen will open at the Royal Opera House on 5 June, running until 26 June. (See the Royal Opera House website.) The 8 June performance will be shown on screens across the United Kingdom; for further details, please click here.