I do not know what opera I just saw performed by the Salzburg Landestheater at the Felsenreitschule (something nonsensical about Mexican drug cartels), but I do know what I heard: a musically-outstanding performance of Bizet‘s Carmen.
The highest kudos must go to the Landestheater’s music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, for ignoring the idiocy on stage and getting the musicians to produce real drama. She captured the emotion, drove the (real) plot, and balanced the tragedy with the light-heartedness and dance in much of this music. The orchestral colors mixed in just the right combinations, full but never overwhelming the singers.
The cast, too, responded to her direction more than to the stage director’s. The Byelorussian mezzo Oksana Volkova portrayed a seductive – both flirty and hard-to-get – Carmen with a full voice, although it tired during rhe second act (performed without a break from the first, so requiring her to show quite a lot of stamina). Tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi, like his character Don José a Basque, took most of the first act to warm up, but his originally somewhat-dry voice came into its own as the opera progressed. Philadelphian Zachary Nelson disappointed as a weaker-voiced Escamillo, more telling in contrast to the others. The best voice of the evening belonged to Russian soprano Elena Stikhina, as Micaela, whose beautiful instrument radiated confidently.
About the staging (a terrible concept by Andreas Gergen), the less said the better. This was not an update into another time and location, but rather a retelling of the story. Determining exactly how to get the new plot to match the libretto took too much energy. When it became apparent that the musical performance deserved full attention, I started ignoring the revised plot on stage and just enjoyed the music. Looking at the singers, it seems they tried to do the same, focussing entirely on Gražinytė-Tyla and getting on with it.