Opera News, March 2007
Bizét: Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, December 2006
Carmen Royal Opera House
It's been twelve years since the Royal Opera performed Carmen, which is a long time, even given the fact that that period includes the closure and rebuilding of Covent Garden. It appears to be a plank of the theater's current artistic policy to reinstate popular favorites, presumably including Bizet's masterpiece, in sensible, good-looking productions that will sustain regular revival. The choice of director for the important assignment of visualizing one of the few operas whose fame extends well beyond the charmed circles of opera initiates fell on Francesca Zambello, working with designer Tanya McCallin, lighting designer Paule Constable and choreographer Arthur Pita. The new Carmen opened on December 8.

The general look of McCallin's Seville was realistic and idiomatic in terms of costumes, and again realistic, with just a hint of semi-abstraction, in terms of the lowering orange walls that formed the adaptable unit set. The ease of moving these around into different configurations helped the evening flow briskly (just one interval, following Act II), as did the lithe, graceful conducting of music director Antonio Pappano, whose way with the score delivered its passion and psychological richness without sacrificing its Gallic lucidity.

Zambello's concentration on character and narrative placed what are undoubtedly "numbers," even in Bizet's original, within a clear-edged intellectual framework. The dance routines at Lillas Pastia's (the character was presented here, in a minor deviation from the text, as a woman, by Caroline Lena Olsson) were executed with vivacity and point. The participation of some animals — a donkey in Act I, a horse for Escamillo's entrances in Acts II and IV and somewhere, apparently (though I must have blinked), a chicken — looked a bit old-fashioned, but it was fun, and the cast was good enough not to be even momentarily upstaged.

It was led by the Gypsy of Anna Caterina Antonacci, whose sole previous Covent Garden appearance was as Elcia in a short-lived staging of Rossini's Mosè in Egitto back in 1994. (She's sung Rossini's Ermione and Handel's Rodelinda at Glyndebourne more recently.) Antonacci is the real thing. Though many of her roles are unequivocally soprano parts, Antonacci's voice matched perfectly with the lower-lying Carmen, her tone emerging free and easy and avoiding any chest-voice gutturals. She was consistently musical and elegant. She was also dramatically formidable, flawless in her stage flamboyance, her intelligence and her sense of control. The Royal Opera could have found no one better to do the part.

Antonacci was finely matched by the Don José of Jonas Kaufmann, another artist of significant musicality and intelligence. He's not a vocal bruise of a corporal — indeed he's a little on the light side — but he deploys his voice so cannily that one never really notices. Above all, he shaped every line beautifully, making a great thing, quite properly, out of the flower song. As an actor, he was expert and considered, charting José's fall from grace into violence with a careful and revealing attention to dramatic detail.

Making up the rest of the central quartet were the traditionally macho and vocally healthy Escamillo of Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, who also had charm and humor, and the gauche, pigtailed Micaëla of Norah Amsellem, the only French principal, who made her character's gentle lyricism and good-girl behavior blossom into an effective foil for Antonacci's raunchier protagonist.

Every one of the smaller roles, too, had something special to offer, with the young South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo's Moralès, British bass Matthew Rose's Zuniga and Australian soprano Elena Xanthoudakis's Frasquita all shining with particular brightness.

Photo-Credit: NORRINGTON Nigel/ArenaPAL

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