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Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen (1875)
Carmen – Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano)
Don José – Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Escamillo – Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (baritone)
Micaëla – Norah Amsellem (soprano)
Frasquita– Elena Xanthoudakis (soprano)
Mercédès– Viktoria Vizin (soprano)
Zuniga– Matthew Rose (baritone)
Moralès – Jacques Imbrailo (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano
Francesca Zambello (Production)
rec. live, Royal Opera House, London, December 2006
Region Code: 0, Aspect Ration 16:9, LPCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 Surround
DECCA 0743312 [152:00] 
Experience Classicsonline

There are far too many mediocre Carmens out there. Too often conductors or directors shy away from the obvious sexual undercurrent to the piece and they try their best to make the piece ‘respectable’. Happily Francesca Zambello’s ROH production refuses to do this and it is all to the good. 

Zambello’s real gift is for directing people and the best thing about this performance is its general feel. The sunburnt ochre sets are pretty nondescript and uninteresting, but the details of the characters suggest all the stifling heat of a murderous Spanish summer where passions are dangerously close to the surface. The gypsies and cigarette girls gleam with perspiration and wear costumes that allow a lot of flesh to be displayed to titillate the soldiers. The crowd scenes are all well managed, from the rabble of children at the changing of the guard through to the riot in the cigarette factory which, for once, looks as passionate as it sounds. The gypsy dance at the beginning of Act 2 is choreographed with skilled specialist dancers who bang their percussion and strut provocatively in a way that adds to the music rather than detracting from it, and the crowd at the bullfight scramble around in a well planned mêlée, down to the picadors in their brightly coloured costumes. 

The leads are part and parcel of Zambello’s well judged package. Antonacci is a dangerous, passionate Carmen who milks the character for the dangerous vamp she is. Her dance moves and gestures are all calculated to emphasise her predatory sexuality and she achieves this very well indeed. All of this would count for nothing were it not for her thoroughly assured singing, revelling in the mezzo depths of the role more luxuriously than in the brighter moments, though her smoky voice suits this down to the ground. She throws herself into the amoral gypsy aspects with abandoned decadence. If anything, however, Jonas Kaufmann is even finer as her smitten lover. His acting is entirely convincing: he is the well behaved soldier of Act 1 but we see him become steadily more unhinged by his obsession with Carmen until by the final scene it seems that murder is the only natural outcome of his passion. His singing is nothing short of remarkable, his rich, baritonal register suiting the role of damaged lover. His solos are characteristic and distinguished: you immediately take notice during his offstage Dragons d’Alcala and the Flower Song is the highlight of the set, his head turned with his passion for Carmen, and the final ascent is as clear and assured as the rest has been dark and passionate. It is the interaction between the two leads that is most satisfying, though: the physical and vocal chemistry seems to career ever closer to mutual destruction until their intensely physical fight in the final scene which results in a brutal and instantly regretted stabbing. 

The other roles are fine. D’Arcangelo’s Escamillo has fantastic tone and all the swagger one would hope for in this role. Norah Amsellem’s Micaela gets there in the end, but she sounds strained in the opening scene, often attacking from under the note. Frasquita and Mercédès really light up the card scene, while Zuniga and Moralès are two of the more distinguished graduates of the ROH’s Young Artists Scheme. 

With his Latin background Pappano conducts a headlong, thrustful account of the score, but broadens out beautifully for moments like the Flower Song or Act 3 Entr’acte. The orchestra’s playing is as superb as ever and the chorus seem to enjoy being encouraged to let their hair down. The BBC direction is very sensible and the surround sound is good, if not exceptional. 

All told, then, this is Carmen as it should be: decadent, passionate and sexy.

Simon Thompson


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