Jim Pritchard
Bizét: Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, December 2006
A chicken, a donkey and a beautiful black stallion … what no bull? Well quite a lot actually. Raymond Gubbay’s ‘in-the-round’ crowd-pleasing extravaganzas at the Royal Albert Hall have had quite an effect on Covent Garden- its three most recent new productions of repertory fare, Faust, Tosca, and now, Carmen have tried to bring some of that ‘spectacle’ to the Royal Opera House stage. No expense spared, never have one extra chorus member or actor when you can have two; allow the eye and ear (plus possibly baser instincts) to be engaged but never the brain, which might as well have been checked in at the cloakroom along with the bags of Christmas shopping.

For most of Act I Francesca Zambello’s production unfolds against monumental dusty adobe walls forming the town square with an orange tree (it’s Seville, remember?) in the centre, and a long water trough stage right. It began as a flashback from Don José’s cell against a tableau which made me immediately think about Goya, although Tanya McCallin’s designs had a mid-nineteenth century feel about them and the programme shows a painting by Manuel Castellano from that period which seems to have had a strong influence on the mise en scène. There are too many people milling around, too many children and street urchins playing about, too many cigarette girls: it all becomes like watching a movie in widescreen and having no close-ups. It was difficult at times like this to pick out where the main singers were in the crowd, and they often jostled each other with little sense of moving for any purpose other than to distract the eye.

Even Carmen’s eventual release at the end of the first Act is played out with unnecessary people lolling idly by. She is at the end of a long rope and didn’t you just know she was going to use it to entangle José. This was another problem with a staging of this sort, where fullest use is made of the space available- it had to be a long rope because they both had to be so far apart.

The inn, the mountains and outside the bull ring were all achieved by a rearrangement of the ochre-coloured ‘walls’ of this town square. This overcrowding and distance problem also features in all the remaining acts. Lillas Pastia’s tavern seems to be the Iberian equivalent of the ‘Queen Vic’ and must be the only hostelry in town as there were so many people there having a good time. A curiosity was the amply proportioned women dancing flamenco with stick thin men. Into this throng comes Escamillo on his tall black horse. Later José sings his offstage song and then has to sprint to the front to greet Carmen, because he is so far back. He subsequently fights Zuniga and is beaten up but then staggers for some reason right across the stage from one side to the other, in order to collapse to the floor. As a final insult to the audience’s intelligence the smugglers leave carrying crates all clearly marked ‘Explosivos’ … who cares, was this really necessary?

The Act III encampment had real fires and atmospheric lighting (by Paule Constable) to depict a mountain pass. The smugglers and later José himself abseil down the ‘cliff face’ stage left. The fight between José and Escamillo was more like ‘handbags at dawn’ stuff but there were good moments, mainly when Carmen sang and in that confrontation between the two rivals for her affections or between José and Micaëla that was either against an empty stage (empty of supernumeraries at least) or when everyone stood still. This had been true also in Act II when Carmen wrapped her legs around José’s head or lifted her skirt over it and the simplicity of it all involved you in their passion as the comparable moment of them alone in Act IV drew you into what fate has in store for her.

So there is a fairly traditional last Act apart from a totally unnecessary cute Billy Elliott wannabe cartwheeling and somersaulting across the front of the stage. Here strangely the procession seemed devoid of that spectacle (there seemed to be only one picador) and then Carmen enters on horseback, and a large Madonna figure is brought on stage to be venerated. Then everyone finally went away and the best was left for last – two young talented actor-singers believably playing out the last moments of their characters’ doomed love.

Undoubtedly what redeemed the evening was the singing and orchestral playing, where refined is the word that comes most to mind. I don’t know whether it is a good thing or not but Antonio Pappano’s increasingly lyrical, vigorous though expansive conducting style, in whatever music he is performing, reminds me a little of James Levine as a similar ‘all rounder’ conductor of everything from Puccini to Wagner. There was even a Mahlerian tinge to the overture and the entr’acte before the last Act hinted appropriately at the savagery to come, yet althroughout he is a most sensitive ‘accompanist’ to musical highlights such as José’s ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’. He marshalled his forces extremely well keeping a perfect balance and ensemble between stage and orchestra particularly when the exceptional chorus were at full throttle. Appropriate to the staging presented his overall reading carries no major new insights or revelations … perhaps there are none to discover in the Bizet? The only kitsch and rough edges are those that Pappano wants, though perhaps it lacks something, what that is I find difficult to define but it might just not have been viscerally exciting enough.

Undoubtedly Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Carmen was able to excite a great proportion of the male audience. Hers was a very knowing Carmen whose every swirl of her skirt, glance, glimpse of cleavage or leg was calculated for maximum impact on the idiot male of the species. She oozed a sensual, sexual magnetism of a type rarely seen in opera. Her soprano voice has an elemental seductive quality with plenty of mezzo-like smokiness and huskiness for the Habanera and her most affecting ‘Encore! Encore! Toujours le mort!’ as she sees death in the cards in Act III. What I perhaps missed was the darker tones that would have given more impact to her final exhortation ‘Jamais Carmen ne cédera! Libre elle est née et libre elle mourra!’ (‘No, no! Carmen will not give way! Free she is born and free she dies!’). As they say it is not how you start it is how you finish that is important and so this probably accounted for the Italian singer not getting the overwhelming ovation she seemed to expect at the end of the performance.

It was Jonas Kaufmann’s Don José who received the acclamation from the audience of a type rarely awarded to any tenor whose name is not Domingo. His was an portrayal worthy of that great singer as he went from awkward Corporal still trying to shake off his priesthood training, through lust, jealousy, the pity of the lovelorn and finally to murderous rage. His voice is secure throughout the range, he has burnished tones and he tackles his top notes with care but gets there effortlessly. As a German with male model looks, of course, the thoughts of Wagner roles cannot be far away. I have already heard his lyrical Walther von Stolzing and he has Parsifal in his repertoire. As he approaches 40 he must surely add Lohengrin and Siegmund before long and then the pressure will be on for him to try and sing Siegfried because he would be a Hollywood producer’s dream in the part. I hope this will not be too soon, but I hope to be there when he does.

The rest of the cast were somewhat in the shade of these two central performances; the French soprano, Norah Amsellem, seemed suitably gawky and naïve as Micaëla, her voice too harsh to give the necessary emotional resonance to her scenes. I was expecting more, by reputation, from Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Escamillo. The role is indeed a thankless one but demands virtuosity, yet, his ‘Toreador, en garde!’ seemed to be affected by his fear of the horse he had begun by sitting on and in Act III he was out of breath after his fight with José and no one can give of his best in those circumstances.

Finally, in the smaller roles there was yet another curiosity; are there no young or old British singers capable now of being Carmen’s gypsy friends or smugglers? I do not wish to seem xenophobic but there must have been opportunities here to display some home-grown talent at our premier opera house? The whole cast was a veritable United Nations and the only Briton was Matthew Rose as a stalwart Zuniga, but despite some thoughts that we should really look after our own (as they do in other European houses) I have nothing but praise for Jean Sébastien Bou and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as Dancaïre and Remendado, as well as, the perky and lively Frasquita and Mercédès of the Elena Xanthoudakis and Viktoria Vizin.

If I wanted to see a ‘show’ then there are plenty of West End musicals to choose from. At the Palladium they are about as able to portray life in Salzburg on the eve on the Anschluss as this here is nothing like life in the real Spain. It might show us it through Bizet and his librettist’s imaginations but is that good enough for the twenty-first century? The Royal Opera must challenge us a bit more than this. Okay, so perhaps English National Opera would have set it in Kabul with the tobacco replaced by poppies, and they would have been smuggling heroin and not explosives. The ‘sexy girls’ would also be in burkhas to add to the irony. (I am available to direct a production of this sort if anyone wants me to?) Of course I wouldn’t advocate going this far at Covent Garden but I would still like those in the expensive seats to be made to think more, even at the risk of a run taking just a little longer to sell out, which this did almost at once … unseen.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson / ArenaPAL

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