, Monday 11 December 2006
Tim Ashley
Bizét: Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, 8 December 2006
Royal Opera House, London
Nietzsche famously called Carmen "an epigram on passion," an apt remark given the concentrated subtlety of Bizet's great score. There's nothing remotely epigrammatic about Francesca Zambello's new production, however.

Marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Opera, it's a big, gaudy affair, awash with moments of gratuitous excess that threaten, on occasion, to swamp Bizet in camp. José (Jonas Kaufmann) abseils off a cliff into the smugglers' lair. A bevy of fat flamenco dancers clatter away during the chanson bohème, obliterating some of the music altogether. There's livestock all over the place, while Escamillo (Ildebrando d'Arcangelo) preposterously rides into Lillas Pastia's tavern on horseback.

Balancing some of this, however, are moments of considerable insight. Kaufmann establishes the troubled nature of José's sexuality at the outset by furtively glancing at the tobacco factory long before Anna Caterina Antonacci's Carmen has issued from its smoky depths. D'Arcangelo sings the Toreador's song strutting on a tabletop like a whorish catwalk model, whose goods are available to the most appealing woman on the floor below. Antonacci, mesmerising as always, plays the title role with a mixture of self-assured hauteur and provocative sluttishness, lubriciuously pinioning José by gleefully wrapping her legs around him, then eyeing him with growing contempt as he breaks down completely during the Flower Song.

There's some fabulous singing. Kaufmann, his voice rearing with desire and choking with emotional agony, is the finest José to be heard for ages. Antonacci occasionally sounds less than beautiful, though her insidiously suggestive delivery makes her utterly compelling. D'Arcangelo, with his velvety tone, has an animal sensuality. Only Norah Amsellem's Micaela, tremulous and shrill, disappoints.

Antonio Pappano conducts, deploying some extreme speeds, which confers a heady languor on some of the more sensual passages, though the pounding ceremonials of bullfights and marches have a brittle glitter rather than genuine fire. He takes some liberties with the score, however. A substantial cut at the opening of fourth act undermines its shape. A couple of sections of dialogue have oddly been replaced with some of the posthumously written, inauthentic recitative the work acquired in the decades that followed its premiere. Given that Carmen is among the most perfect of operas, the changes are perverse and completely unnecessary.

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