The Sunday Times, December 24, 2006
Hugh Canning
Bizét: Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, December 2006
If you can't stand the heat...
Stay out of the House. But though Antonacci's Carmen is red hot, the production leaves Hugh Canning cold
Unfortunately, these marvellous, transitory achievements reside in what will be a permanent fixture in Bow Street for the foreseeable future: Francesca Zambello’s nondescript staging. This may not be the worst thing the American director has done in London, but it is disappointingly bland and aimlessly busy. Cynics could be forgiven for thinking that the RO commissioned Zambello for this cornerstone of operatic literature — surprisingly absent from this theatre’s billboards for 12 seasons or more — precisely because they knew she would supply inoffensive, unchallenging repertory fodder, easy to revive and “popular” enough for the management to charge a top whack of £170 for C-list singers. The cheesy, undercast revival of a 32-year-old production of La bohème earlier this season suggests that the Royal Opera has no problem selling substandard performances at that price, provided the title is a crowd-puller.

In my interview with Antonacci four weeks ago, the mezzo-soprano loyally described Zambello’s staging as “classical”. “Conventional” or “routine” would be nearer the mark. The American director tells the story competently enough, and supplies enough space-filling business, with hordes of children and a small menagerie of live animals (a donkey and a chicken in the opener; a scene-stealing black stallion for the toreador to make his entrance) to keep the eye diverted, but novel insights are few.

During the overture, we see a dishevelled, manacled Don José in prison, awaiting his execution for the killing of Carmen, so the entire action is seen, as it were, in flashback. This is, by now, a hoary old device, but one that at least throws the spotlight on José’s tragedy — the good, dutiful soldier who loves his mother, but is transformed into a homicidal maniac by his consuming passion for an irresistible woman, leading to murderous sexual jealousy.

Zambello is lucky with her protagonist this time round. Kaufmann is the first German tenor I have seen in this quintessentially French role, but he has everything for the part: youthful, Mediterranean good looks; a dark, baritonal timbre; excellent French; and an ability both to phrase his music stylishly and to sing viscerally thrilling high notes. I don’t think I have heard a more beautiful account of José’s Flower Song, crowned with an exquisitely modulated, pianissimo B flat — one of the trickiest things any romantic tenor has to do, and almost invariably belted out by some of the most famous names in the business. Kaufmann may not have a record company behind him, but he is rapidly emerging as one of the most important, and versatile, singers of our age. He still sings Tamino in Mozart’s Magic Flute, and is dipping his toes into Heldentenor repertory. ()

To have a Carmen of equal charisma and subtlety on the same stage is riches indeed. Antonacci avoids the tired, hip-swinging-harlot view of the beguiling gypsy, presenting her as a self-confident free spirit, unwilling to be bound by men, but capable of tying them in emotional knots. She sings in near-immaculate French, with the intimacy and informality of a cabaret artiste, and what she does with her legs, wrapping them around José’s neck in the seduction scene like a pair of randy pythons, is everybody’s business here. Her physical suppleness — she does a mean flamenco routine, and looks fitter and slimmer than the professional dancers engaged at Covent Garden — matches the delicacy and muscularity, when needed, of her singing. Her light but richly coloured “second soprano” voice may not conform to traditional ideas of Carmen in a big theatre such as the Royal Opera House, but it may well be closer to the sound Bizet had in mind when he created the part. His model was Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Antonacci’s Carmen has the mercurial quality of Seville’s notorious philanderer.

The supporting principals are less remarkable: Norah Amsellem’s Micaëla has idiomatic French but the sounds she makes are shrill and wiry, while
Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s handsome Escamillo, surprisingly short of low notes for a bass, is unidiomatic and upstaged by his stallion. The quintet sparkles thanks to the casting of two Frenchmen, Jean Sébastien Bou and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, as the smugglers, and the South African Jacques Imbrailo, one of the RO’s new Young Artists, makes an impressive debut in the tiny part of Moralès.

Apart from his bizarre decision to make a ghastly cut at the beginning of Act IV, Pappano and his orchestra effortlessly draw attention away from Tanya McCallin’s low-budget stage pictures and tawdry costumes — the procession of bullfighters, few in number, looks like a pathetic turnout for Seville’s Gay Pride march, circa 1880 — and toward the miracles of Bizet’s ever-astonishing score. Carmen has rarely sounded so alluring at Covent Garden in recent decades.

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