A new rendition of Carmen at Sofia Opera House


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The premiere of the opera Carmen, based on the novel by Prosper Mérimée (librettists: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy)[1] was a failure in Paris. Soon after the composer died and could not see the great success it made in Vienna in an arrangement by Ernest Guiraud, a former fellow student of his, in whose version the spoken dialogue was substituted with sung recitatives, compiling the second of the two suites from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne. This new version was shown in Paris eight years later achieving the success which it had enjoyed ever since across the opera houses over the world.


Carmen is very popular in Bulgaria being staged in a total of 35 versions, 11 of which in Sofia. The new rendition by Acad. Plamen Kartaloff was premiered on 3 November 2017 at Sofia Opera House. The company is scheduled to tour Japan in 2018 performing his version.

As early as the Overture[2] the performance focuses on the love triangle between Carmen, José and Micaëla. A collective character of the Three Fates has been invented and performed by ballet soloists[3], binding the trio together by invisible ties or rather ropes. The tacit presence of the Three Fates is of paramount importance to the entire feeling of the production. The Fates would pop up in critical to the three characters moments entangling them in their ropes. They are there again in the final duet right before the murder despite the fact that their dramaturgical role has not been developed convincingly enough.


An interesting directorial solution is the insertion of a ballet scene between the third and fourth acts. The scene depicts Carmen’s Soul being a ballet interpretation of her murder with the participation of the Fates.

In fact, in Kartaloff’s rendition Carmen is depicted in three hypostases: mostly a singing Carmen, but also a rowdy Carmen fighting at the factory performed by a ballerina[4], as well as Carmen’s Soul performed by principal ballerina Katerina Petrova.[5]

Unfortunately, Kartaloff treats Escamillo as a minor character thus depriving the narration of the second love triangle. Still, the composer and the librettists have devised categorical enough Escamillo as an opposition to José, which did not tell in the production and, to some extent, robbed the murder in the finale of its underlying rationale.


The characters of Escamillo, Dancaïre, Remendado, Frasquita and Mercédès along with Moralés and Zuniga in Kartaloff’s interpretation are just a segment in the bigger picture created by the commenting chorus. In this reading the dividing line is between the protagonist––Carmen, José, Micaëla, actively performing within a circle––and the quite more static members of the chorus commenting the action and the Fates.

The set design by Miodrag Tabački [6] includes a drum revolve towering on the stage (where only the protagonists are performing[7]), surrounded by three stands for the chorus commenting the unfolding action).[8]


Typically recently of Kartaloff’s productions, the protagonists would not die but rather seem to pass into another dimension. The same holds true for Carmen. The use of a rose and the main character becoming engrossed in it was especially spectacular for she seems to become a rose herself, or her soul sinks in the flower.[9]

I’d like to underscore the softness of the sound and a special plasticity of the phrases achieved by the orchestra[10]. The detailed work with the orchestra told in its perfect fusion of the rest of the production’s components. I admire the changes made by Keitaro Harada in the orchestral seating plan by moving the group of the French horns to the right with the rest of the brass[11], though in the first part they were too loud for the audience to hear the singers properly. Fortunately, it was settled after the interval.

The conflict between the characters mounted in Hristiyana Mihaleva-Zorbalieva’s costumes: brighter colours evincing no particular nationality in the attire of Carmen, Don José and Micaëla; black and gold in the costumes of the masked members of the chorus; gold for Escamillo; sumptuous ballet costumes with long trains successfully working in Antoaneta Alexieva’s choreography.


Internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva is one of the performers of Carmen in the production.[12] She is not just brilliant when singing, but also an accomplished actress. She builds a restless Carmen, with her own sense of the developments, leaving her in the position of a lonely and unappreciated girl, who, though, stands up for her own rights. Her plasticity in the performance especially of the Habanera and the Seguidilla was remarkable.


Sanja Anastasia has also been invited by Kartaloff for the role of Carmen.[13] Gergana Rusekova sings Carmen in the third cast.[14]

Kostadin Andreev, perhaps the best tenor presently in the company of Sofia Opera House, built a marvellous character of the enamoured Don José. There were passages in the First Act, where Andreev seemed to overestimate his abilities. The general impression though is of a perfectly thought-over, well-rehearsed and performed role.

In my opinion, Veselin Mihaylov as Escamillo was not convincing enough as a participant in the action due maybe to the directorial concept of his non-participation in the central circle, but also, to his unconvincing vocal presence in the performance.

Micaëla built a delicate and innocent girl, spiritually strong enough though to venture to look for Don José at first in the barracks, then in the tavern and finally, in the smugglers’ den. Tsvetana Bandalovska was arresting in her role and I think that she built her character quite convincingly.

The rest of the characters––Remendado, Dancaïre, Zuniga, Moralés, Mercédès and Frasquita––though minor were performed by good enough soloists and the detailed directorial and mise-en-scène work with them did tell.


The performance of the chorus under chorus master Violeta Dimitrova were tonally pure, thick and hugely impactive.[15] The general impression created by the new production of Carmen is of a conceptually built performance sending out clearly and spectacularly articulated messages.

[1] The French duo Meilhac and Halévy wrote also operetta libretti for Offenbach.

[2] I watched the third performance on 5 November.

[3] Rosen Kanev, Kiril Ivanov, Matthew Whittle.

[4] Choreographed by Svetlin Ivelinov

[5] Choreographed by Antoaneta Alexieva, who worked with the singers, the chorus, choreographed the Soul, the Bohemian Dance, the dances with Escamillo.

[6] It is not the first time that Kartaloff collaborates with Miodrag Tabački.

[7] Except for Escamillo.

[8] This image of s circle symbolising the doom of the protagonists would, more often than not, occur in Kartaloff’s productions, e.g. in the finale of Turandot it is a revolving circle where the Chinese princess sees Liu..

[9] The rose is a symbol significant to the entire production. Carmen brings it with her first appearance onstage. Then she leaves it upright in the circle until the finale, when she takes it again. I think that introducing this symbol, Kartaloff could have played with it in the rest of the episodes rather than in the beginning and the finale of the operatic narration alone.

[10] Born in Tokyo, Japan, Keitaro Harada attended the Interlochen Arts Academy and Mercer University in Macon, Georgia; a student of Lorin Maazel and Fabio Luisi; presently, works mostly in the USA.

[11] Such Bulgarian conductors as Vladi Simeonov and Rositsa Batalova have made such changes in Bulgaria, but they were never made a common practice in this country.

[12] A decade and a half ago she debuted as Carmen at Stara Zagora Opera House under the same director and choreographer.

[13] Serbian mezzo-soprano Sanja Anastasia studied at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz and Vienna, Austria; prizewinner at several international singing competitions; guest appearances at the most popular opera houses; soloist with famous orchestras; she performs the title role in Carmen at the National Theatre, Sarajevo as well.

[14] Gergana Rusekova is known for her role as Kundry (Parsifal by Wagner). She took part in a number of masterclasses and studied at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh; winner of various prizes at prestigious competitions.

[15] The chorus was not onstage in the fourth act, but sang offstage in their main role of commenting events unfolding elsewhere.


A new rendition of Carmen at Sofia Opera House

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