The Telegraph, 10 December 2006
Rupert Christiansen
Bizét: Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, 8 December 2006
Gypsy charms lift flat Carmen
Rupert Christiansen reviews Carmen at the Royal Opera
Two dazzling stars illuminate the Royal Opera's otherwise fairly dull new production of Carmen. A raven-haired beauty with charismatic stage personality, Anna Caterina Antonacci plays Bizet's gypsy as a brave and sharp-witted woman surrounded by idiot men pathetically lacking in her passionate energy and appetite for life.

She sings the role with ease and authority, making even over-familiar numbers like the "Habanera" freshly vital, and brings an animal ferocity to her final confrontation with her wretched lover. It's a gripping interpretation, its only significant flaw being a tendency to clichéd thigh-rubbing and mane-tossing when suggesting Carmen's sexual guile.

Jonas Kaufmann is equally impressive as Don José, a man clearly out of his emotional depth, whose uncertainty about himself and his desires pushes him headlong into murderous insanity. I've never heard a German tenor sing French music with such fine style.

"The Flower Song" was touchingly and intimately done – a shy confession of first love rather than a tenor showpiece – but he could fire big guns in the last scene, too. Together, he and Antonacci made deep psychological as well as musical sense of their encounters, and the audience rightly rewarded them with an ecstatic reception.

If only they had been framed by a staging more richly textured than the thinly mediocre effort directed by Francesca Zambello. The curved ochre walls of Tanya McCallin's set do nothing to evoke the back streets of Seville or the sweat of Lillas Pastia's tavern, let alone the deserted mountain pass of Act III.

Little touches such as making Lillas Pastia a woman or showing Micaela in the crowd outside the bull ring are neither here nor there when everything else in the picture is so blandly picturesque and lacking in any sort of emotional authenticity or realism. This is Carmen conceived as toothless operetta not biting music drama, and the Royal Opera should be ashamed of presenting anything so dismally anodyne.

At least Antonio Pappano's conducting generated some of the electricity lacking in the production. Carmen needs to be driven with plenty of oomph to stop sections of the first and third acts dragging, and Pappano certainly kept things moving in a generally loud and brisk reading, played with gusto by the orchestra. Bizet's Gallic elegance was short-changed, however: the overall effect was a bit heavy-handed.

Ildebrando d'Arcangelo sang Escamillo with confidence, but looked glum not surprisingly, because despite the hit ''Toreador" aria, it's a rotten role, impossible to bring to convincing life. Norah Amsellem inexplicably appeared to be playing Micaela as a half-wit, and her soprano took on an acidic edge under pressure. The attendant gypsies, smugglers and officers were all excellent, with the young South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo making a particularly strong mark as Morales. The chorus sounded in rude health.

It's worth paying good money to see – and hear – Antonacci and Kaufmann strike sparks off each other. But otherwise this really isn't much of a show.
Photo-Credits: Catherine Ashmore

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