OPERA, February 2007
Bizét: Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, December 2006
Royal Opera at Covent Garden, December 8
Carmen is one of those great operas, like Don Giovanni, of which one is lucky to see and hear a really satisfying and satisfactory performance once or twice in a lifetime. It is difficult to cast the main roles ideally, but the rest follows easily after that. That is the main problem with the new production by Francesca Zambello, which celebrates the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Opera immediately after World War II. The Carmen is the Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, singing the role for the first time in this house. She is an exciting artist who looks the part to perfection, but is not vocally one of nature's Carmens, at least not until the last scene when the music becomes more passionately Italianate and she was in her element. Until then she had sung with a certain restraint, her teasing of Don José more decorous than animal and her Habanera elegant. In the Card Song, however, her dusky lower register provided real thrills. But somehow one could not quite believe in this gypsy as a "free spirit".

On this occasion the star of the show was the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, in his role debut as José. From his first appearance he conveyed the complex personality of this misfit and brought a Lieder singer's intelligence to the role without sounding at any time un-operatic. The Flower Song was exquisitely phrased, with an attention to Bizet's dynamics which was as pleasing as it is rare. Tall, handsome and moody, he set a new standard for the role; his final encounter with Carmen had one on the edge of one's seat through his dramatic intensity. Escamillo was another Italian singer, lldebrando D'Arcangelo, physically well suited to the role but, like most Escamillos. uncomfortable in the lower notes of his famous aria for all his vocal swagger and brio. The only French singer among the principals was Norah Amsellem as Micaëla, a dull and pallid performance. Matthew Rose was a commanding Zuniga and I liked the sound of the young South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo as Morales.

Antonio Pappano conducted as if consumed a new with love for this music. His was a colourful and sensitive-almost Beechamesque-account of the orchestral score, relishing its fastidious detail and always maintaining pace and tension (but why the cut in the last act?). He is always considerate to his singers and the performance was notable for clear delivery of the French text. Zambello's production brought no surprises, revelatory or disagreeable, except for Lillas Pastia's change of sex and Micaëla's appearance in the crowd outside the bullring, neither of any dramatic consequence. The crowd scenes contained a horse and a donkey, and the smugglers abseiled into their lair (why?). The children were well directed, but Zambello appeared to be uninterested in the subsidiary characters-one scarcely noticed Frasquita and Mercédès. It was a routine, unexciting staging, with designs by Tanya McCallin that conveyed little sense of heat or squalor.

Carmen was chosen because it launched the company in January 1947. To mark this there is an especially interesting programme


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