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19 Dec 2013

Carmen, Royal Opera

Francesco Zambello’s 2006 Carmen, here revived for the sixth time, seems to have something of an identity crisis: sumptuous spectacle or gritty drama?

Visually, a vibrant palette and slick choreography are the order of the day. The warm hues of designer Tanya McCallin’s looming sets complement the concentrated ochres and rusts of the Sevillians’ attire; in the bright sunlit square (lighting design, Paule Constable), an orange tree and a water conduit add a dash of ‘realism’. Wealthy passers-by stroll nonchalantly; children skip and prance, their comings and goings overseen by the watchful military guard. The choral numbers are meticulously manoeuvred; there is scarcely an urchin’s footstep or whirling parasol that is out of place. It is all very pretty and eye-pleasing, but the overall effect is rather soulless; the participants seem to perform for us, rather than engage with each other.

The same is true of the flamenco dancing in Act 2: the fancy footwork and showmanship (choreographer, Arthur Pita, revived by Sirena Tocco) remind one of a Christmas Nutcracker, designed to please the eyes and ears, without overly troubling the heart and mind.

Given the foregrounding of these highly managed ensemble routines, the omission of the Act 4 chorus at opening of last act is both surprising and a disappointment. And, there are some redundant ‘extras’: if the donkey in Act 1 looked perplexed as to its purpose, the decision to introduce Escamillo on horseback is even more unfathomable. McCallin’s high walls have swung inwards to create the cramped and darkened locale of Lillas Pastia’s inn; there is hardly room to swing the proverbial cat, let alone ride a horse.

Fortunately, Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, in the title role, offered much recompense. Passionate and committed, Rachvelishvili’s voice is huge, but also mellow and luxurious — although it is stronger at the bottom than the top. She used the sultry, exotic colours of her lower register to dominate the stage. Physically too she emphasised Carmen’s earthy sexuality, acting with untamed abandon, dismissive of moral boundaries, ruthlessly targetting her prey. I’m not sure that we needed to see quite so much leg, or quite so often. Rachvelishvili seemed to spend much of the opera with her skirt hitched up to her hips, legs astride the hapless males who strayed into her clutches; indeed, even when she promised to perform a special dance for Don José, in his honour, this Carmen promptly lay down and bared her flesh. The unalloyed sluttishness was rather overdone and diminished rather than increased her allure.

Carmen rather overwhelmed her José, Robert Alagna, in the first two acts; this gypsy is no ‘victim’ of patriarchal and racial oppression, simply a ‘bad girl’ who destroys her man. Alagna sang with his customary projection — indeed, a little less ‘con belto’ would have been nice at times — but the intonation was disappointingly inconsistent — most lamentably at the pianissimo close of his Act 2 Flower Aria, where Alagna’s tender cadence was marred by flat pitch. The acting was rather perfunctory to begin with but in Act 4 Alagna did begin to convey Don José’s torment, credibly portraying the complexity of the pitiable soldier’s divided affections and self-rebuke.

There was little rapport between Verónica Cangemi’s Micaëla and José: in the opening act, the reunited childhood friends sang side-by-side, clutching hands and facing the audience — again, singing to us, rather than each other. José’s perfunctory kiss — blink and you’ll miss it — suggested he mind was occupied with nostalgic thoughts of his much-missed mother rather than with amorous inclinations. The Argentinian Cangemi struggled technically — the top was insecure and there was some vocal roughness, but ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ communicated sincere feeling.

Italian bass-baritone Vito Priante sang well enough, but didn’t make much impact dramatically as Escamillo. A few poses à la toreador astride the table-top do not alone fashion a hero of the bull-ring.

In the secondary roles, baritone Ashley Riches (Moralès) and French bass Nicolas Courjal (Zuniga) made a stronger impression; the latter evinced the masculine power and authoritative presence that both Alagna and Priante at times lacked. Irish mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly (like Riches, a Jette Parker Young Artist) was strong as Mercédès, and she was neatly complemented by Simona Mihai’s bawdy Frasquita.

The ROH Orchestra sounded ragged at times; Daniel Oren’s conducting was somewhat unpredictable — the overture began with breakneck swiftness, before trailing off dispiritingly; the Habanera was sleepily sluggish. In particular, the dancers in the second act seemed disconcerted by the irregular tempo, but throughout stage-to-pit co-ordination was weak. There was some fine individual instrumental playing but the parts didn’t add up to an accomplished whole.

There are several changes of cast to come in this production run, which continues until 9th January, including two more acclaimed Carmens: Anna Caterina Antonacci and Christine Rice. They will have a challenge to match the uninhibited, almost reckless, abandon of Rachvelishvili’s blazing intensity.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Carmen, Anita Rachvelishvili; Don José, Roberto Alagna; Escamillo, Vito Priante; Micaëla, Verónica Cangemi; Frasquita, Simona Mihai; Mercédès, Rachel Kelly; Le Dancaïre,Adrian Clarke; Le Remendado, Stuart Patterson; Zuniga, Nicolas Courjal; Moralès, Ashley Riches; Director, Francesca Zambello; Revival director, Duncan Macfarland; Conductor, Daniel Oren; Designs, Tanya McCallin; Lighting design, Paule Constable; Choreography, Arthur Pita; Revival choreographer, Sirena Tocco; Fight director, Mike Loades; Revival fight director, Natalie Dakin; Royal Opera Chorus; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Monday 16th December 2013.

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