Like many of the other opera houses in Germany, the Coburg State Theater was originally founded as a court theater. Coburg in earlier times was the Residence of the Dukes of Sachsen-Coburg, a princely family that was famous in the nineteenth century particularly because one of its members, Prince Leopold, became the first King of Belgium, and his nephew, Prince Albert, was the husband of Queen Victoria of the U.K.
The current opera house was built starting in 1838 as the ducal court theater. After the dissolution of the duchy in 1918, the theater was taken over by the city of Coburg and the state of Bavaria, which have been supporting it ever since.
The main auditorium seats 550 spectators on four levels, with an imposing section in the middle of the first balcony that was originally intended for the reigning duke and his family and guests. Now of course anyone can sit there, and it isn’t even terribly expensive, just 39 Euros for an average opera performance. And if that is too much, you can get in for as little as 15 Euros if you don’t mind sitting off to the side in the second or third balcony.
The Coburg State Theater has its own opera, drama and ballet ensembles, as well as its own chorus and orchestra. In addition to opera performances, they have an ambitious program of plays, concerts, operettas and dance.
The opera I saw in Coburg was Carmen by Georges Bizet, which I have also seen in different productions in Frankfurt, Bremen, Verona, Weikersheim, Toulon, Paris, Marseille, Düsseldorf, Bad Orb and Bad Hersfeld.
According to the website Operabase, which keeps track of such things, there were 605 performances of Carmen worldwide in the 2018/2019 season, making it the world’s fourth most-often-performed opera after Verdi’s La traviata (795 performances), Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (707) and Puccini’s La Bohème (611).
In a side room next to the lobby in the Coburg opera house, the dramaturge Dorothee Harpain gave us an introductory talk half an hour before showtime. She began by suggesting that after seeing the staging of Carmen by Alexander Müller-Elmau we might like to read the novella Carmen by Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870), since the staging is based on the third chapter of the novella, in which the convicted murderer Don José reviews his life while awaiting his execution.
The dramaturge pointed out that this novella is available in German translation as a Reclam paperback for all of three Euros. As I have mentioned elsewhere, these Reclam books are tiny paperbacks, measuring 14.7 x 9.6 centimeters (that’s 5.75 x 3.8 inches), that have been published in this form in Germany as “Reclam’s Universal Library” since 1867. I found them especially useful when I was in the American army, because they easily fit into the front pocket of a US Army fatigue uniform.
A few days after seeing the opera in Coburg I did in fact re-read Mérimée’s novella, but not in the German Reclam edition because I already had a copy of the original French text at home.
From the novella, we learn that Don José had already killed a man, in a fight, before he joined the army and before he met Carmen. After he deserts from the army, at Carmen’s instigation, he becomes not only a smuggler but a notorious bandit who murders several other people before finally killing Carmen and then turning himself in to the police.
The first-person narrator of the novella is a French archeologist who resembles the author, but the story is not something that Mérimée experienced first-hand. Rather, it is his imaginative re-telling of a story he had heard years before from Spanish friends.
Most productions of the opera Carmen tend to emphasize the differences between Don José and Carmen, since he comes from Navarra, in northern Spain, and is by nature more ponderous and less spontaneous than Carmen and the others in the south. In Barrie Kosky’s Frankfurt production, for example, Don José is the only one who doesn’t dance (aside from Michaëla, who only dances when she is forced to), and he is mostly in the shadows while the others are brightly lit up.
In the Coburg production there is more emphasis on the similarities between the two characters. Both Carmen and Don José carry knives, for instance, and are quick to use them even in trivial disputes. (This is clear from the libretto, actually, but most productions don’t stress it.) In Coburg, Carmen even does an erotic dance with her knife, in which she pretends to be slitting her wrists and the entire length of her arms. If she had really done that she would have bled to death before even finishing the dance.
Despite her morbid eroticism, Carmen in this production is not portrayed as an exotic femme fatale, but more like a snotty, rebellious teenager.
The really unique thing about the Coburg staging (at least I’ve never seen it done this way before) is what happens at the end of the second act, during the rousing finale when they all sing about “la chose enivrante: la liberté! la liberté!”. In this scene the army officer Zuniga is usually just taken prisoner for an hour or two, until the smugglers can get away, and he accepts this inconvenience with good humor, but in this staging Don José stabs him to death and the women smugglers immediately search his pockets and take everything of value, so the joyful finale before the intermission takes on a decidedly bitter aftertaste.
Coburg was my 69th German opera house, out of the 71 I have been to so far, and I was once again impressed by the singers, the chorus and the orchestra, and by the intelligence and inventiveness of the staging. The Coburg audience was also impressed, judging from their enthusiastic applause.
My photos and text in this post are from 2019.