Carmen in German? I must admit I was sceptical. It’s not that opera doesn’t work in German – Wagner certainly saw to proving the contrary – but I’ve always felt that the passion and glamour of Carmen is closely connected to its sundrenched Seville setting. Transplanting it to Frankfurt, amid a backdrop of modern skyscrapers and with an audience of bankers and businessmen, just wouldn’t come off in my opinion.
Our first impressions upon arriving at the venue seemed to confirm my thoughts. The doors to the botanical gardens, where the concert was being staged in an outdoor arena, were opened an hour before it was due to begin. We arrived a respectable three quarters of an hour early, to find that the majority of the seats had already been reserved with typical German efficiency. We tottered past rows of couples in shorts and sandals, feeling ridiculously overdressed in posh frocks and heels, and settled for a side view.
It wasn’t all bad though – the couple next to us immediately offered to share their picnic spread of Brezel, Bratwurst and Weißbier, and we readily tucked in. It wasn’t a glitzy champagne and oysters affair, but neither was it pretentious and snobby. As I chomped a little too eagerly on their offerings and spilt curry sauce down my blouse, our new friend Herr Fischstein slapped me on the back and lifted his beer glass, proclaiming ‘Prost!’
But how would Bizet’s opera sound in German? Would the beauty of the French original be lost in translation? Even as a German speaker, I struggle to find the phrase ‘ich liebe dich!’ as charming as ‘je t’aime!’ But funnily enough, as the overture set in and then the first few lines were sung, I barely noticed the change in language. The well-known music remained the same, the powerful scenes continued to entertain, and our sausage-savouring companions even showed an unexpected sense of humour as Carmen eclipsed poor Frau Fischstein by sitting on her husband’s lap and helping herself to a generous gulp of his Bier.
It seemed that neither German opera stars nor its spectators take themselves as seriously as I’d anticipated. During the interval, the chorus joined us for mugs of Apfelwein and freshly barbecued sausages, entertaining us with tales of various rehearsal mishaps and performance mistakes. The tiny daughter of the first violinist was seated in the front row throughout and knew every piece off by heart, prompting an audience member to lift her in the air as we applauded the orchestra. Above all, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves – from the drunken parties portrayed onstage to the couples watching from their picnic rugs.
But the powerful and moving scenes ought not to be overlooked either. There was something ominous about the drunken revelry, with the women outlandishly displaying neon-coloured underwear, clutching a gun in one hand whilst caressing a man with the other. The jealous tension that ultimately drives Don José to kill the woman who has tormented him so intensely was so ingrained in his character that we held our breath at every entrance he made. Even as Carmen paraded around the stage, ostensibly revelling in her command over the male protagonists, ominous undertones to her behaviour remained tangible. The inevitable culmination, a dreadful stabbing that imposed a sudden, horrible end on the intoxication, stunned us into a silence that transcended all language barriers and differences.
They say that music is a universally spoken language, and I’m inclined to agree. My mother, who speaks only a few words of German, left lauding the talents of Frankfurt’s Kammeroper, and has already booked tickets to their next production. This time the beers will be on us.