Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Carmen review – Aigul Akhmetshina triumphs in the Royal Opera’s new production

6 April 2024


Damiano Michieletto’s new production of Bizet’s most popular opera shows potential, despite some obvious first night jitters.

Carmen

Aigul Akhmetshina (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

It’s understandable why the Royal Opera turned to Italian director Damiano Michieletto and his trusted team of collaborators for its new staging of Carmen, given they were responsible for the award-winning double bill of Cav and Pag. Indeed, having never been a fan of those two venerable verismo warhorses, Michieletto’s pitch-perfect stagings totally changed my opinion of them, and having seen them when they were new, and at every subsequent revival, for my money they remain the best stagings in the company’s repertory.

Were they going to be knocked off the top spot by Michieletto’s new staging of Carmen, commissioned to replace the widely reviled Barrie Kosky version, and co-produced with the Teatro Real, Madrid and La Scala Milan? On the evidence of the first night the succinct answer to that is ‘no’, but that’s not to say Michieletto’s staging doesn’t have some good things going for it, but the white hot, visceral intensity that Calixto Bieito’s 2012 staging for ENO (and seen in many other opera houses across Europe) oozed from every pore, is in short supply here.

What worked in Cav and Pag – use of a revolve, Paolo Fantin’s down and dirty designs, doesn’t always fit the bill here. A permanent building serves as a police station, hoochie coochie bar and green room for the bullfighters, but other than that the stage is sparse, save for a few B&Q plastic chairs and a beaten-up van. If it wasn’t for Alessandro Carletti’s expert lighting plot – 100 bulbs suspended in a grid above the stage, spots casting portentous shadows, this would be a very stingy visual affair. And as to be expected these days, the action is updated to the late ‘70s, so Carla Teti’s costumes have more than a whiff of charity shop about them.

Michieletto also introduces a sinister, elderly female figure, dressed all in black, complete with mantilla, who stalks the stage with a pack of cards, handing them out to the main characters, as a portentous omen of what’s to come. Turns out, she’s Don José’s mum, although this didn’t seem explicitly clear – one had to rely on the programme notes to realise who she was. She doesn’t add much to the proceedings, especially as only we, the audience, see her. Another aspect to this staging that might have seemed like a good idea on paper, but one that doesn’t work, is having the kids come on between acts, holding up letters to inform us of the time that’s elapsing. The cuteness of it all is at odds with the plot, and detracts from the music.

“…Michieletto directs his cast, and chorus with a sure hand…”

Carmen

Aigul Akhmetshina & Piotr Beczała (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)

Still, despite these reservations, Michieletto directs his cast, and chorus with a sure hand, drawing out three-dimensional, fully thought-through performances. Thankfully, there’s no posturing nor hackneyed nods to a picture postcard vision of Spain. Whether or not this is why quite a few punters left at the interval – maybe they were expecting an evening of Carmen clichés – is up for debate, but Michieletto’s staging definitely has potential. It just needs a few rethinks here and there, which will no doubt come with time.

Aigul Akhmetshina is not yet 30, yet is the most in demand Carmen at present, having sung it to great acclaim at the Met, New York, before heading to Glyndebourne this summer for their new staging. Not only does she sing the role gloriously, her rich, resonant voice even throughout the range, but she creates a credible figure on stage. Part petulant teenager, part free-spirited feminist, you can’t help but be drawn to her whenever she appears. She’s already a major star, so it’ll be fascinating to see how she develops into the role in the years to come.

It was good to see Polish tenor Piotr Beczała back here after too long an absence, his forthright, honey toned tenor lavishing exquisite care on Bizet’s vocal lines, while singing with unflinching ardour and power. His Flower Song was a lesson in Gallic style, and while other singers may chart the character’s descent into violence more convincingly, few can match Beczała’s innate musicianship. Olga Kulchynska, who possesses a bright, creamy soprano, easily capable of soaring over the orchestra, was a delightful Micaëla, and rightly was accorded one of the loudest ovations of the evening.

Kostas Smorignias did what he could with the role of Escamillo, but it’s an ungrateful one – too low for baritones, too high for basses, and occasionally resorted to bluster, while Gabrielė Kupšytė and Sarah Dufresne were a delight as Mercédès and Frasquita – vibrant and superbly voiced. 

In the pit conductor Antonello Mancadora got off to a good start, the playing of the orchestra crisp and articulate, but he couldn’t sustain the momentum throughout the evening. There were times when his conducting lost focus, becoming too generalised at times, which led to some off kilter moments between stage and pit. This is a staging that’ll need time to bed in. A new cast of principals and conductor take over in May – maybe they’ll be able to inject the eroticism that was curiously absent at the opening night.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.


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Carmen review – Aigul Akhmetshina triumphs in the Royal Opera’s new production
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