Bizet: Carmen ****
Royal Opera, 3rd October 2009
‘Phew! What a scorcher!’ might well be a tabloid headline for a review of this revival of The Royal Opera’s Carmen, and an entirely appropriate one at that as this first night performance was supported by The Helen Hamlyn Trust in association with The Sun, whose readers took the opportunity to purchase the heavily subsidised tickets available through the newspaper. The Royal Opera, who won an innovation award this week for its initial collaboration with The Sun to open the 2008-9 season with Don Giovanni, has been keen to repeat the exercise in attempting to open up opera to a new audience. The choice of Carmen seems ideal. No “fat birds in Viking helmets” screamed The Sun’s article, (well, there’s little chance of them even in Wagner these days!) just an opera “packed with trollops, treachery, filthy vices and fabulous voices”. And all done to prove that opera, “thanks to The Sun, is not just for the toffs”.
I greatly enjoyed this production when it was first aired in 2006 with Anna Caterina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann starring in Francesca Zambello’s staging, but wondered how well it would suit Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča, back at Covent Garden following her stunning Romeo last season.
The curtain rises on a postlude to the whole opera – Don José is shown in prison, clutching the withered flower Carmen threw at him, a bit like those trailers for tv dramas which can act as a spoiler – before the action proper begins.
What a contrast to last week’s Tristan! The libretto states that we are in “a square in Seville, with a cigarette factory and a guard house”…and that’s exactly what we get in Tanya McCallin’s stage design, dominated by burnt orange walls of the two buildings, the square complete with tree and water trough. The chorus is well deployed, considered as individuals rather than en masse, each with their own story. It could be viewed as a distraction, drawing the eye from the main action, but it gives a realistic impression of a bustling marketplace, complete with donkey ambling around and scantily-clad women washing their hair in the trough to cool down. The walls rotate to become Lillas Pastia’s inn in Act II with the addition of tables and chairs, whilst the circular aspect of one of the buildings lends itself well to being the exterior of the bullring for Act IV. Where the staging works less well is in Act III where the presence of such set-dominating structures in the gypsy camp in the mountains strikes one as a little improbable. And why on earth does José abseil down a wall into the camp, when everyone else seems to be able to access it from the wings?! The festive costumes and Paule Constable’s effective lighting, especially in Act IV, create a credible sun-drenched Spain.
Singing Carmen for the first time in the UK, Elīna Garanča immediately surprised by her physical appearance: dark-haired and tanned. Fears about how her Baltic precision and coolness would cope portraying the sultry Spanish gypsy melted as she smouldered from the off, teasing and pouting her way through Act I, doing extremely suggestive things up her skirt with the flower in the Habanera before flinging it with precision at José. Where she doesn’t quite convince, however, is vocally. She has a truly beautiful voice, perfect for bel canto repertoire, but it’s neither large enough nor ‘dirty’ enough to be a Carmen…yet. There were glimpses in the card scene of a suitable darkening of the voice which she may well develop into other parts of the role later in the run. I do hope so as there are many commendable things about her performance.
Roberto Alagna, also making his role debut at Covent Garden, really does seem to be so much more at home in French repertoire. His was, without a doubt, the performance of the night as the gullible, charming officer of the first half of the opera descended into the desperate outcast, mad with passion for his woman by the end. He retains that thrilling tenor sound which so impressed the first time I saw him in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette many years ago. Although he came to grief on the B flat near the end of “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” (which wasn’t sung at the marked pianissimo either), it was easy to be won over by such a wonderful voice and charming stage presence.
Escamillo was Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, returning to the role. This time round, he looked a good deal more comfortable making his entrance on horseback, from where he delivered the first verse of the famous Toréador song. Once again, he really looks the part – suave, macho, strutting his stuff up and down the tables of Lillas Pastia’s tavern like a model prowling the catwalk. His voice has the firmness required and it’s easy to see how Carmen is seduced. The brief scene between Escamillo and José in the gypsy camp, which can so often fall flat, bristled with tension here.
Reprising her role as Micaëla was soprano Liping Zhang. She has a small, attractive voice and it wasn’t until the latter part of her duet with José that she really hit her stride, both she and Alagna displaying honeyed tone in “Ô souvenir du pays”. Her Act III aria was well phrased, although she didn’t convince me that Micaëla is anything more than a wet blanket.
Conductor Bertrand de Billy was fast out of the traps, taking the Act I Prélude at a real lick, generating plenty of excitement. Throughout the evening, the orchestra played superbly, carefully nuanced playing balancing the brasher elements of Bizet’s score. At times, they appeared to be too loud, but this could well be a problem from where I was seated. Several times the singers (never Alagna) struggled to ride the orchestra, apart from a ‘sweet spot’ stage left, around where the officers’ table is set in Act I. Garanča located this and at times her voice really did seem the right size for the role.
The smaller roles were, on the whole, well taken. I liked Vincent Ordonneau’s Le Remendado and Adrian Clarke’s Le Dancaïre, the Act II quintet delivered slickly and with panache. Eri Nakamura and Louise Innes, as Frasquita and Mercédès, were fine, if without the characterization of Elena Xanthoudakis and Viktoria Vizin, who were outstanding in 2006.
I was sceptical about how many in the audience would be (a) genuine Sun readers or (b) new to the Royal Opera House. Lots of photographs being taken in the auditorium and plenty of asking for directions convinced me of the latter and their response to the performance was euphoric and heart-warming. I sincerely hope they return for other shows…though perhaps Tristan might not necessarily be a recommendable next step.
This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.