Evening Standard 11.12.06
By Fiona Maddocks
Bizét: Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, 8 December 2006
No smoke but plenty of fire
Covent Garden's new Carmen has it all: bondage, cleavage, animals, acrobats, children and a tenor to die for (which our gipsy heroine does). The staging, for all its traditional elements, is physical and sexy. Director Francesca Zambello excels in big crowd scenes and heart-on-sleeve intensity. Bizet's 1875 masterpiece is her ideal vehicle.

You could quibble over casual detail, some uneasy French dialogue or the excess of bosom-wobbling gesture, but the total performance captivates. Tanya McCallins's set, a sweep of rust coloured bull-ring like a Richard Serra sculpture, is bold and effective.

In the Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, we have a Carmen who moves with sinuous ease and oozes vampish allure. Crucially, she has the rich mezzo timbre required for this vocally taxing bitch-fatale role.

Hers is not the only animal magnetism on stage. There's a donkey and a chicken plus a huge black horse on which the toreador, Escamillo, makes his entry. Unfortunately, the four-legged steed rather outshone the two-legged stud, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, who sounded pale and unsure, as if nervously attempting his first gymkhana. Once out of the saddle, he recovered his poise.

Where this production scores, giving fresh urgency to the central relationship, is in the Don José. Too often, the spurned lover is played as the kind of tubby dullard Carmen would never glance at in the first place. But the dark-eyed Jonas Kaufmann, who's stepped straight out of a Caravaggio, brings subtle intelligence and dignity to the role. For once, you believe in his charms.

Kaufmann, a gifted Lieder singer, is interested in musical and dramatic fidelity rather than showy heroics. Indeed, his high notes were mostly hushed, expressive, held back. This poetic reading was encouraged by Antonio Pappano, newly signed up for another five years as ROH music director, who opted for often spacious tempi and daringly languid pianissimi. Orchestra and chorus stylishly entered the Gallic-Spanish spirit.

Grand climaxes had raw excitement and if ensemble often lapsed between stage and pit, this only hinted at firstnight tension. With cigarettes fast becoming as anachronistic as bear-baiting, the tobacco factory had a certain deodorised cleanliness, all the women soapily scrubbing each other's naked backs. Though set in a virtually smokefree zone, this Carmen was full of its proper fire.
Photo Credit: BARDA Clive/ArenaPAL

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