Bloomberg, 11 December 2006
by Warwick Thompson
Bizét: Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, 8 December 2006
Royal Opera's Lavish 'Carmen' Has Steamy Gypsy, Dreamy Hero
Enrico Caruso once said it was easy to put on a good performance of `Il Trovatore.'' All you need are the four greatest singers in the world.

Using that reasoning, a production of ''Carmen'' should be even easier. You only need to find the best singers, conductor, director and choreographer. A cinch.

Francesca Zambello's spectacular new production at London's Royal Opera certainly looks as if it had a smooth birth. She uses the text and score as the basis of the drama, and tells the story clearly with close attention to characterization. The lively chorus scenes have military precision, and lavish spectacle alternates with intimate moments of passion. It couldn't be easier.

It's only when you've sat open-mouthed at shows with ill- conceived concepts, cranky visuals and cluttered crowd scenes that you realize what skill that takes, and how rarely it occurs. This is a ''Carmen'' built on a love of the score, and it shows.

Zambello sets the work in the 1870s, and peoples her scenes with fashionable women in bustles, widows in black and street urchins. Tanya McCallin's set, lit with virtuosity by Paule Constable, employs two monolithic ocher-colored walls to create everything from the plaza of Act 1 to the exterior of the bull ring in Act 4, with Lillas Pastia's snug tavern in between.

Orange Tree

Extra details, such as an orange tree in the town square or a statue of the Virgin carried on an elaborate paso in Act 4, supply a vivid sense of color and place.

Anna Caterina Antonacci takes command of the title role, and offers a portrait of the doomed gypsy that switches between sardonic amusement and tiger-like passion. She doesn't have a huge voice, yet marshals her forces beautifully. Antonacci can rasp out low notes with disdain or caress them, and she uses her creamy middle register to great effect in the seductive ''Habanera.''

Handsome tenor Jonas Kaufmann (Don Jose) has every wow factor you can imagine. He convincingly metamorphoses from a callow youth to a man driven to the edge of sanity by his passion, but somehow doesn't let his distress compromise his ringing high notes. It's a tour-de-force performance that should get Hollywood, let alone the rest of the world's opera houses, knocking on his door.

Norah Amsellem (Micaela) doesn't sing as smoothly as the others, and hasn't worked out that pretending to be awkward and actually looking awkward aren't the same thing. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo perks things up with a swaggering, testosterone-fueled portrayal of the toreador Escamillo. He even arrives on a real horse in Act 2.

Fresh-Minted Style

It's hard to know where to begin enumerating the pleasures of Antonio Pappano's fresh-minted conducting of such a familiar work. The balance of the chorus, soloists and orchestra in the complicated smugglers' scene was so good, for example, that I even heard a short phrase of Carmen's that I had never realized was in the score. The counter-melodies in Don Jose's ''La fleur que tu m'avais jetee'' (''Flower Song'') were brought out with perfect emphasis, not too loud yet still attractively audible.

The Mahlerian string portamenti (a weighty gliding effect between notes) in the overture were gorgeous in their old- fashioned meatiness. During the entr'acte before Act 4, the violins played with a rough sound at the heel of the bow and it perfectly prefigured the savagery of the final scene. Everything was to the point; it all worked.

The Royal Opera's previous production of ''Carmen'' was last seen 12 years ago. I suspect this one will be back a lot sooner.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson / ArenaPAL

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