The Times, December 9, 2006
Geoff Brown
Bizét: Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, 8 December 2006
Geoff Brown at Covent Garden
How real do you want a production of Carmen to get? Gored bulls aren’t necessary for the final act, unless the director is bent on public outrage. Cigarette smoke from the factory girls might be an irritant; useful, though, in a “verismo” opera, bent on the surface of truth. But there’s one ingredient that must be included: sex appeal. If Bizet’s opera doesn’t sizzle, it risks falling pretty much dead.

Francesca Zambello’s much-hyped new production for Covent Garden, London — “its first, astonishingly, for 15 years” — certainly tries to sizzle from the frying pan into the fire, from first act to last.

You see the effort in every twitch of Anna Caterina Antonacci’s low-cut dress; her every bared knee and straddling leg; every taunting glare of her very white teeth; every roll and grapple on the stage floor. She knows how to make her voice smoky, too, or careen round Bizet’s long-legged melodies at full throttle, even in wobbly French. But the Carmen of this least ubiquitous of Italian divas — “she’ s rarely seen on stage in the UK, rarely met even on recordings” — is missing the key ingredient of any temptress: sexual heat. Were we watching the calculations of Carmen the character or Antonacci the performer? Last night, at the premiere, it was hard to say.

Charisma shone from the stage nonetheless in Jonas Kaufman’s Don José. New to the part, Kaufman immediately made a perfect fit. He is full of furtive looks at first — still the man originally bent on the priesthood. The more smitten Don José becomes, the looser his body, the more dishevelled his hair, the more beautifully anguished Kaufman’s tenor. Declaring his love, and his guilt, in his big Act Two aria, he finally raised this production’s temperature. More of that from Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s rather bottled-up Escamillo would have been welcome.

The staging itself didn’t help to fan the flames. Tanya McCallin’s designs hemmed us in between big burnt orange walls, variously configured, cutting off much performing space.

The extras’ fussiness and plenitude added to the claustrophobia. It was great to see the real donkey, of course, and Escamillo’s black horse; I was even fond of the chicken. But Zambello’s tendency to garland almost everyone in Seville, urchin or grown-up, with rolling hoops, brandished sticks and twirled sunshades, made for unnecessary distractions.

Inevitably Zambello threw a good Act Four parade — streamers flying, bursts of gymnastics, a miniature religious procession. She even threw some good imitations of Goya paintings, too.

The most convincing stage brouhaha featured the cigarette girl chorus and the gypsies. This was where reality came in, with happily imperfect bodies cavorting with a wink and a slink through some brilliant choreography by Arthur Pita.

Others, too, did their very best to add zing. Norah Amsellem always made us feel Micaëla’s genuine love for her wayward José. And Antonio Pappano, in the pit, put all the expected snap and crackle into the orchestra. But without a Carmen to die for, something serious is missing. A second cast, headed by Marina Domaschenko, goes into action in late January.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson / ArenaPAL

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