Bizét: Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, 8 December 2006
Fri Dec 22 Royal Opera House
Miracles do happen. The ROH's new production of Bizet's wonderful – but hideously hard to bring off – opera about the cigarette-girl who can damage your health fields an eternal triangle who are beautiful and sexy, lovely movers and compelling actors. Francesca Zambello's direction, as we know, is good on crowds, with set pieces that occasionally veer into out-to-the-front Broadway routines, and this production piles on the effects, including poultry, mules and, for Escamillo's impressive entrance, a superb black horse (though a slightly breathless baritone lagged behind the conductor's beat and didn't sound too secure in pitch in the saddle). But there are also moments of intimate intensity, as in Act 2 when gypsy girl and besotted soldier crouch on the ground like watchful animals, flawed wild creatures, doomed by a destiny as unyielding as the sun-baked walls of Tanya McCallin's set. Not for the first time the thought occurs that the work should be entitled 'José'. It's not the diva's fault: the tenor's role is a brilliant chronicle of an emotional journey. José actually develops and changes, Carmen stays the same. She has three show-stopping numbers, he has the Flower Song, which Jonas Kaufmann turns into a passionate psychological drama, delivered with such intensity (and burnished tone) that it scored the first night's biggest ovation. Anna Caterina Antonacci's intelligent Carmen lightens her soprano (the Standard, as ever on its own planet, referred to her 'rich mezzo') to convey the music's Gallic nimbleness but at the moment lacks vocal colour and character. Other good points: spoken dialogue is kept to a minimum, and the onstage French induces no winces. No real weaknesses, though the Micaela was in fluttery voice and fidgety histrionic mood. Apparent updating to the time of the opera's composition (1870s) adds little except some smart clobber for posh supernumeraries. Pappano evokes sleek orchestral sound that highlights Bizet's refined scoring – is that the trouble with 'Carmen'? We want sweat and Italianate bawling or Spanish tang and resin, while Bizet has composed an archetypal French score, elegant, stylish, witty, restrained (honestly; listen to the instrumentation) to a story of lust, jealousy and murder. Given the work's dichotomy, this peformance has much to enjoy as a sleek holiday treat. But withers remain unwrung, geese unpimpled.
Photo-Credit: NORRINGTON Nigel/ArenaPAL

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