Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Carmen @ Royal Opera, London

3, 6, 10, 13, 21, 24 October 2009


Carmen (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Opera houses can’t go wrong with Carmen. With great tunes and a gripping storyline, it’s a perennial crowd pleaser. But to stand out from the crowd, a production has to give something new or very special. Disappointingly, the Royal Opera House offers neither. But thankfully, sensational Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča was singing the title role for the first time in this country.

The company has gone back to Francesca Zambello’s 2006 production, which it revived last year, and which will be repeated again later this season. The director’s trademark high walls bounded the stage on three sides. Coloured a dark, reddish orange, they evoked thoughts of Marrakech rather than Seville, and contrasted oddly with the glassy marble-effect flooring. Their looming presence was completely out of place in the smugglers’ camp in Act III, although they were much more appropriate as the walls of the bullring in Act IV. Costumes strove to be authentic, but resembled a nineteenth century holiday view of Spain, and the bendy orange tree which was rolled away at the end of Act I was just plain ridiculous.

Nevertheless, this production does have one great asset its Carmen. Garanča delivered the role with real passion and energy. She was totally convincing as the sultry gypsy temptress, blowing hot and cold, and at times displaying some quite astonishing dance skills. She was possibly too sluttish rather than alluring (the bust thrusting, baring of thighs, and shoving of hands up her skirts was a little overdone), but she was certainly the best actress in the cast. Vocally, Garanča displayed great strength and versatility. Her hold over the low passages, such as during the Act III card scene, was masterly.

Roberto Alagna’s Don José was not much to write a postcard home about. For most of the first half he sounded fairly flat. Certainly not at his best, he seemed to be hardly trying. There was a glimmer of expressiveness in La fleur que tu m’avais jetée, but he didn’t really rally until the row with Carmen at the end of Act III. Plumping the depths of regret, grief and anger in the final murderous scene of Act IV, Alagna finally gave us a taste of what usually makes him such an exceptional operatic interpreter.

The rest of the cast were fairly so-so. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo was disappointing as Escamillo. His grand entrance on horseback in Act II was undermined by a very muted rendition of the toreador song. Somehow, he lacked the vocal muscularity needed to give a convincing performance of the testosterone-fuelled bullfighter. Liping Zhang as Micaëla was insipid and uninspiring although, to be fair, it is a dull role.

Conductor Bertrand de Billy and the orchestra of the Royal Opera House adequately serviced Bizet’s score, though without much distinction. For some reason, de Billy rushed through the overture and Act IV prelude at breakneck speed, robbing the audience of the chance to savour some of the composer’s best and most famous orchestral music.

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