With its angular sets and exuberant staging, Francesca Zambello’s 2006 production of Carmen provides a thoroughly modern approach to capturing the Spanish essence of the opera.The main reason for seeing it, however, is that it features some exceptional performances. In the title role, Christine Rice’s voice is as mature and expressive as ever, and may have developed even darker hues since she last played the part here in 2010. Her Carmen is less the frivolous, feisty temptress, and more the ice queen who can toy with any man’s affections, fully confident that she is automatically in control. There is also much subtlety in Rice’s performance, for at the start of Act III she genuinely seems more weary, not because Don José has actually succeeded in tying her down, but because even the fear of not being free has been enough to drain her a little. Her sense of resignation at the end as she makes no attempt even to pretend that she loves the corporal is also deeply affecting.
Yonghoon Lee, who has already played Cavaradossi at Covent Garden, makes quite an impact as Don José. His voice is direct, but is no less vibrant for that. It occasionally feels too abrasive in ‘Parle-moi de ma mere’ but, paradoxically perhaps, when it has the opportunity to go full throttle in ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ the power shown is matched by an equal degree of sensitivity. As Escamillo, Kostas Smoriginas reveals a rich and pleasing bass-baritone voice, and if his movements feel a little prosaic in ‘Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre’ this is probably deliberate to show how the character, like Carmen, needs to make no effort to assert their presence.
Sarah Fox as Micaëla is possessed of a strong yet sweet soprano voice, and she demonstrates excellent mastery of technical details while still making ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ feel impassioned. Her interaction with Lee in ‘Parle-moi de ma mere’, however, is slightly lacking, even allowing for the fact that the corporal’s mind is supposed to be elsewhere. Three Jette Parker Young Artists – Michel de Souza (Moralès), Anush Hovhannisyan (Frasquita) and Rachel Kelly (Mercédès) – all put in highly impressive vocal and dramatic performances.
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, under the baton of Daniel Oren, delivers a smooth, well balanced sound that reveals attention to detail, and really allows the textures of the different instruments to come to the fore. It is, however, the combination of precision and sprightly panache that makes the performance stand out. The Overture feels impassioned but has a springy lightness of touch, while the Introduction to Act III is sublime in its beauty.
The production itself does not feel as effective as when seen for the first time. On an initial viewing we may be bowled over by the cast of hundreds and Tanya McCallin’s rusted orange sets that exude metaphorical heat. Watch again, however, and the mismatch between these two elements becomes all too apparent. Employing so many performers as well as real horses and donkeys heightens the realism, which is at odds with the sets that were never designed to capture the authentic colours or architecture of Seville.
The performers consequently struggle to feel an affinity with their surroundings, but the main problem is that everything is just too detailed and exuberant. The first time around we can be overwhelmed by the choruses of rowdy factory girls and boisterous children, and by the spellbinding ensemble performance of ‘Les tringles des sistres tintaient’. There is, however, something unfulfilling about witnessing a virtual repeat (there are a few developments) of a staging that had so much impact the first time around. This will not, however, be a problem for those who have not seen the production before.
Each of the principal roles is being shared by several performers over the run but Anna Caterina Antonacci excelled in the original production, while reports of Georgian mezzo-soprano, Anita Rachvelishvili, making her Royal Opera debut, have been positive. Visit the Royal Opera website for their respective performance dates and select your seductress.
On 12 January 2014 there will be a ‘Welcome’ performance of Carmen, which includes backstage tours and is aimed specifically for families that would not normally have the opportunity to come to the opera. For further details click here.