It was 2014 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
Clémentine Margaine, a graduate of the Paris Conservatory and winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Concours International de Marmande, was an ensemble member of the company who had just been handpicked by the casting director of the company to sing the title role of “Carmen.”
“I was very lucky that the casting director offered me to sing the role, even though Elina Garanca and other stars were singing the role,” she told OperaWire in a recent interview. “He heard me sing the arias and he took a bet on me.”
Prior to that run, Margaine had some experiences with the opera that would become her calling card. She had listened to a plethora of recordings, the first one being that of Teresa Berganza (she picks it as her favorite for the “special charm it has”). She learned it as a student and had performed the arias in concerts here and there.
But this would be her first “proper” “Carmen” production.
Margaine could never predict that the opening night would be such a roaring success for her. Seated in the audience were major heads from such companies as the Washington Opera, Dallas Opera, Chicago, among others.
The reviews were strong for the mezzo with BachTrack noting “Margaine sang with a deep, rich mezzo, her diction clear and perfect. She oozed sexiness and contempt. Hers is certainly a Carmen to watch.”
And sure enough, she’s been THE Carmen that the world has been watching since that run.
Four years later, she has performed in over 15 productions of the opera with such companies as the Washington National Opera, the Teatro di San Carlo, the Canadian Opera Company, Opera Australia, the Metropolitan Opera, the Sächsische Staatsoper, the Opéra National de Paris, the Bayerische Staatsoper, and the Wiener Staatsoper.
Later this season she will make her Royal Opera House debut with the opera and will also appear in the Met’s Live in HD performance in January 2019.
“During my student days, I knew that I would sing it at some point in my career, but never thought it would be the role that would open up the door to so many opera houses.”
Over the course of those productions, she feels that the character has grown in ways that reflect her own maturation as a person and as an artist.
“You have to put your own femininity in it. Your way of moving and what you think of seduction,” she explained. “Freedom is what drives me in life, same as it does for Carmen. As an artist, freedom is very important to your interpretation. That’s what makes you unique. You get inspired by what others tell you, the recordings, the people that guide you, conductors. But what you decide to do onstage is your choice and your freedom.”
The physicality of the role is also one that Margaine cherishes, noting that few other roles offer her the opportunity to dance, sing, and act with so much versatility. She particularly noted her enjoyment with the current Met production which she will perform 15 times by the time the 2019 season ends.
“There’s lots of choreography and dance. You are really involved with the dancers. And I love when they hold me in the air because it challenges me vocally. I have to make it look easy when they hold me in the air on my back and I still have to sing. Those are great challenges because I have to explore singing in different positions.”
But of course, the physicality can also be taxing and painful. The mezzo noted that after her first performance at the Met this season on Oct. 30, 2018, she left with a few bruises all over her body.
“This is what it is. You have to give it everything during a performance of ‘Carmen.’ It can be very exhausting, not vocally, but physically, especially when you walk away with bruises and marks all over your body,” she noted. “But you have to go for it.”
A Great Love
A major component of any success of “Carmen” is the doomed lover Don José. Margaine is currently working opposite Yonghoon Lee at the Met and will eventually work alongside Roberto Alagna for the Live in HD performance. Margaine is no stranger to Alagna’s work as the two took on the opera at the Opéra National de Paris in 2017 in a production by Calixto Bieito.
Per Margaine, the pair did not get much rehearsal time with the production in Paris and they were not quite in synch throughout the opening performances.
“It took us a few performances to find each other. The more performances we had, you could see the growth and difference between the two. We grew very comfortable,” she emphasized. “I adore Alagna as Don José. I think the character suits him very well. He has an animalistic stage presence.
“It should be interesting in New York because we will know each other better.”
Regarding the relationship between the two characters, Margaine likes to see it as an “important, big love.”
“Otherwise Bizet wouldn’t write three hours of music about it,” she noted. “I like to think that it was the first time that a man gave up everything for her and she fell in love with him. I am sure that until she dies, there is a part of her that still loves him.
“That final scene is amazing. If she didn’t love him, it would last two minutes instead of 10-15. It’s not easy for her to break up. Like in life, sometimes you break up with a person not because you don’t love them, but because you tried and you saw that it is not working. Maybe Don José was too controlling, and she saw that Escamillo could bring her an easier life.”
Time To Move On
But after all those years performing this opera almost exclusively (per Operabase, she has around 12 productions of a handful of other operas in that four-year span), Margaine thinks that it is time to move on.
She noted that she still plans to do a few more productions “here and there” and that the role will likely remain in her repertoire in years to come at major opera houses around the world, but audiences will get chances to see her in new operas in coming years.
Among those are the title character in “Samson et Dalila” in the U.S., Charlotte in “Werther,” Marguerite in “La Damnation de Faust,” Adalgisa in “Norma,” and Amneris in “Aida.” She is also looking to explore uncharted territory with Enescu’s “Oedipe.”
“I think it is interesting to add new colors to my repertoire,” she concluded. “I have been at all the major opera houses as Carmen and I think it is time to let others have fun with the character and for me to explore new characters.”