Opera News, March 2010
Bizét, Carmen, Milano, 7. Dezember 2009
MILAN — /Carmen/, Teatro alla Scala, 12/10/09
Stéphane Lissner, the French sovrintendente of La Scala, decided to inaugurate his fifth season here with a new production of Bizet's Carmen. It was performed as an opéra comique, using Robert Didion's critical edition of the score, and never before in this house has Meilhac and Halévy's spoken dialogue — admittedly much curtailed — been delivered so idiomatically. The meticulously rehearsed production boasted a handsomely austere (and beautifully lit) set by Richard Peduzzi, suggesting a generically Mediterranean ambience dominated by the symbols of an oppressive Catholic Church. Within that context, Sicilian director Emma Dante — who had never before worked in an opera house — devised action that matched the rhythms of the music in every bar, often to surreal effect. Her interpretation of the work is fiercely coherent and at the same time dismayingly unilateral. Dante sees Carmen entirely from the point of view of the free-spirited Gypsy who breaks all the rules in a male-dominated society; as a director, she consistently undermines the humanity of the other leading characters. Don José's psychological vulnerability and Micaela's traditional understanding of a woman's role are poked fun at from the very beginning of the action, and these two characters never recover sufficient dignity for us to care much about them.

This approach might have worked if Carmen herself had emerged as a mesmerizingly charismatic figure, but that was hardly the case on December 10, when Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili — a few months ago a student at La Scala's Accademia for young singers — was unable to offer the subtly nuanced phrasing the part cries out for. Although Rachvelishvili moved around the stage with admirable confidence, she lacked sensual allure, and her range of facial expression was decidedly limited. The voice, however, is strong and well equalized, and she clearly believed in what she was doing, suggesting genuine promise for a future career.

Jonas Kaufmann phrased Don José's music with the greatest refinement, and his flower song, with its messa di voce on the climactic high B-flat, rightly won him warm applause. But Kaufmann was perhaps too faithful to the director's concept for us to be really interested in his character, and his sombre, slightly throaty timbre, though not unattractive, lacks the engaging warmth that enables some of his tenor colleagues to win over audiences unconditionally. Erwin Schrott, by contrast, exhibited an instrument of undeniable brilliance as Escamillo, a part that is ideally suited to his histrionic talent. He was the only character onstage who conveyed genuine erotic tension. As Micaëla, Adriana Damato's task was made doubly difficult by the parodistic presentation (the character hid a wedding dress beneath her cumbrous black cape and was accompanied throughout by a priest and altar boys), but her voice was in any case decidedly lacking in bloom, and her words were poorly projected.

The opera was conducted by Daniel Barenboim, who paced some of the numbers rather too slowly (the habanera seemed interminable), but he was well attuned to the vision of the director; the maestro proved skillful in building up tension inexorably during the course of the four acts. The Scala Orchestra accompanied the singers superbly and generated the right atmosphere of desolation for the tragic climax. The chorus, too, provided considerable musical pleasure and took part in the action with total conviction.

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