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FRA Musica FRA 004
27 Oct 2011

Carmen returns to the Opéra Comique

“Historically Informed Performance” sure has a nice ring — not only does the acronym capture the trendiness of the movement (“HIP”), but one has to admire the subtle put-down the term encapsulates.

Georges Bizet: Carmen

Carmen: Anna Caterina Antonacci; Don José: Andrew Richards; Escamillo: Nicolas Cavallier. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The Monteverdi Choir. Director: Adrian Noble. Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Opéra Comique, June 2009.

FRA Musica FRA 004 [2DVDs]

$37.49  Click to buy

After all, any conductor who doesn’t follow the practice would seem to be tagged as “historically ignorant.”

At its start some decades ago, the “HIP” movement focused on baroque and early classical era music. It has since branched out, and that branch is impressively extended with the recent DVD of Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique at the Opéra Comique in an historically informed performance of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Besides employing instruments of the era, this production aims for authenticity from the ground up — or “the stage” up. For Carmen debuted at the Opéra Comique, infamously receiving a less than ideal reception that many conjecture added to the stress which culminated in the composer’s early death from heart disease. Stage director Adrian Noble strives to freshen the action while keeping to a libretto-bound conception of the story and characters. This is still, therefore, a Carmen who sits with legs splayed, and who sashays with one hand on a hip. That said, Noble does have his Don José plant a kiss on Micaela in act one that goes beyond the usual pallid interaction.

Set and costume designer Mark Thompson, however, seems of two minds. The costumes are very traditional, though nicely done — almost everything is in a spectrum of light beige through dark brown, and the clothes look truly worn. In so many a Carmen, everyone looks as if the local dry cleaner is working overtime. Thompson’s uniset, however, surely looks nothing like whatever the Opéra Comique used in 1875. Act three, for example, gives only the barest indication of a mountain pass. Instead, we have a sort of elevated walkway at the rear which slopes to stage level, and a circular platform just off mid-stage. Apparently the cigarette factory is subterranean, as the girls take their break by clambering out of the platform. For act 4, Noble and Thompson clear the stage for the intense action of the last scene.

There are moments in the recorded performance where one can almost imagine, however, that one is watching — if not the authentic first performance — something rawer and more authentic than many another recorded Carmen. Sir John and the artistic team use an edited version of the score (by one Richard Lanhman-Smith) that has spoken dialogue, as Bizet originally intended. And under Noble’s direction, a committed cast delivers strong performances — honest and stripped-down to essentials. Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Carmen has already been recorded in an acclaimed Covent Garden performance opposite Jonas Kaufmann. Her comfort in the role allows her to perform even the most stereotypical gestures and movements with relaxed conviction. Oddly, the only times that her singing reflects any discomfort with the role is at the higher range — which one might think unusual for a singer with a career as a soprano. Perhaps in adjusting her voice for the reliance on the middle range, Antonacci loses a bit of security at the top. It’s a very minor compromise in an otherwise strong performance.

Her Don José does a fine job right up until his big second act aria and continues to be fine thereafter. But Andrew Richards is not able to deliver the “Flower Song” with the security and confidence the moment requires. It’s all the more unfortunate as his Don José is so believable — a man of modest attraction, overwhelmed by the chance to share the passion of Carmen, and then devastated when it is withdrawn. The supporting cast makes more routine impressions, with Anne-Catherine Gillet giving us a Micaela even mousier than usual, and Nicolas Cavallier too smug for his own good as Escamillo.

As for Gardiner and his orchestra, they often play fast, as one might expect, and there are patches of roughness than either attest to the authenticity of the performance or suggest a deaf ear to musical sophistication — depending on one’s attitude towards HIP. Gardiner’s most regrettable choice is the Nehru jacket. Un-HIP.

The packaging is remarkably handsome but not without compromises. Your reviewer prefers removable booklets to one bound to the spine. The two discs are visually nearly identical, with text almost impossible to read. Figuring out how to dislodge the discs from the casing also took more of your reviewer’s ingenuity than he would have liked. The bonus feature is a rather routine 20 minute set of interviews, but as the booklet has nothing but credits and synopsis, anyone wanting a little more insight into the performance will have to view it.

Not a “hip” Carmen, then, but this HIP Carmen does have historical appeal and a strong performance of the title role.

Chris Mullins

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