The Observer, Gurardian, 17 December 2006
Anthony Holden
Bizét: Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, December 2006
Frills, trills and animal passion
From abseiling bandits to a hero on horseback, this full-blooded Carmen is intoxicating
Now one of the world's favourite operas, Bizet's Carmen was booed off the stage when it opened in Paris in 1875. Its protofeminist heroine, staunchly independent to the last, was too much for the French bourgeoisie, even though she died for her defiance - as did the broken-hearted composer just three months later, at the age of only 36.

A well-staged Carmen recognises this trailblazing truth: that conventional sexual politics are inverted in this wonderful work, with the spirited Gypsy girl scorning commitment while her male admirers vow eternal love. Nor is this femme fatale the flawed character so often portrayed. The protagonist with problems is Don José, her jilted lover and eventual murderer, who simply cannot accept her freedom to go off with another man - especially a vulgar, preening matador.

While Roberto Alagna was storming off the stage at La Scala last week, the Italian mezzo Anna Caterina Antonacci was storming all over Covent Garden's, dodging a veritable menagerie of livestock - a horse, a donkey, some chickens - as she tossed her raven hair and shook her frilly skirts through a cleavage-charged performance. Antonacci's Carmen is a bold, uncompromising temptress, reducing the men around her to whimpering wrecks. Floored by her feisty 'Habanera', poor José never stands a chance. What man worth the name would plead that he must return to barracks for roll-call as his dream woman drapes her skirt over his head?

The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann perfectly captures José's bewildered despair, both as the ponytailed soldier and the tousle-haired deserter destroyed by unrequited love. He and Antonacci are that rare breed: superb singers who can also act with subtlety and passion. This dynamic duo alone is worth even Covent Garden's price of admission.

Francesca Zambello tends to bring to her opera stagings the production values of musicals, and this flamboyant show is no exception. Despite Tanya McCallin's lumpen, unimaginative sets, the stage is permanently alive with action, whether briskly choreographed crowd scenes, uproarious dances or bandits abseiling into their mountain hideout. The dashing Escamillo of Ildebrando D'Arcangelo makes his grand entrance, and opens his 'Toreador' song, on horseback, which may be why he sounded less than certain in this most familiar of arias. Norah Amsellem's Micaela is also disappointing, as underpowered as her poor waif of a character.

From the opening bars of the swashbuckling overture, Antonio Pappano sets a cracking pace in the pit, lending the entire evening an animal vitality, pausing for breath only at such magic moments as Kaufmann's exquisite mix of guilt and passion in the 'Flower Song'. It may all be a tad over the top, too hellbent on waving every Spanish stage cliché in your face, but this is an intoxicating Carmen whose affecting denouement squarely nails the free spirit of a heroine as scarily wilful now as in 19th-century France.

Photo Credit:  Johan Persson/ArenaPAL

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