Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen - Opéra-comique in four acts (1875)
Béatrice Uria-Monzon - Carmen; Roberto Alagna - Don José; Marina Poplavskaya - Micaëla; Erwin Schrott - Escamillo; Eliana Bayón - Frasquita; Itxaro Mentxaka - Mercédès
Cor Vivaldi - Petits Cantor de Catalunya, Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu/Marc Piollet
rec. Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Spain, October 2010
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround; Picture Format 16:9, 1080p; Region ABC. Reviewed in surround.

This is a superb Carmen that had me gripped from about five minutes in (see below) until the grisly conclusion. It is beautifully filmed and very well recorded in surround with proper perspectives. But let us get the technical gripes out of the way first.

As usual the disc has been finalised by the tea-boy, in that none of the acts can be accessed from the start except the first. If one breaks between acts the tracks only let you back at the start of the action, not at the start of the various preludes. Worst of all there are no menus unless the menu button is pressed on the remote control. If played directly it defaults to stereo and to no-subtitles. Nothing on screen hints at the need to press any buttons thus I had to guess what was needed. What a pity, because this, uniquely among discs I have reviewed, has no music over menus (once you have found them), no music until the opera starts. Good! Even the subtitles have been placed so as not to obscure the action, sometimes at the top of the screen but mostly at the bottom. Well done(ish) Unitel Classica but please do the whole job properly. Perhaps next time?

The film opens on the gathering audience whilst the titles roll. The Liceu orchestra are very good in the opening prelude but when the curtain rises one's heart sinks because the empty stage has no sign of the square in Seville or the cigarette factory. Worse still the only prop is a glass telephone box. This guy in white suit shambles on ... and the reviewer groans inwardly. It is always a risk attending the opera nowadays and I am sure the audience in Barcelona must have felt that for a few short minutes. The large troop of soldiers are in 20th century battle dress and even have one of their number in his undershorts doing punishment circuits around the rest. The one being punished seems also to be the only dark skinned trooper on stage. Micaëla appears dressed as a tourist complete with compact camera to snap the guards. The guards are a randy lot who unrestrainedly ogle, point at and manhandle her and she is lucky to exit the stage unsullied. The entry of a gaggle of Lolitas dressed to kill, but a touch too young to be out on the town, hammers home the message that this Carmen is not going to pussyfoot around the issues. They are, as the insert notes say, destined either to be factory girls or street-walkers. When the cigarette girls enter this is confirmed, some of them may well be both. Given that Bizet's first audience were uneasy at his 'debauched' libretto with its sleazy characters, this is completely appropriate. As the plot develops we see how 'pure' Micaëla is especially in comparison to the hot-blooded and passionate Carmen, who, as played by the remarkable Béatrice Uria-Monzon, seems able to heat the entire theatre, let alone the stage. This is a great performance, one which you will not forget. Other highlights are the number of Mercedes convertibles on stage - the cars, not those belonging to Mercédès who is far too poor and certainly too drunk to drive anything. Then there’s the immorality of the drunken party in Act 2, the smuggling of huge flat-screen televisions and lots of similar boxes labelled 'Sony' and 'Panasonic', the inexplicably naked man who wanders on and then off stage and the huge dramatic impact of the entry of the toreadors in Act 4 without a single toreador in sight, just the gathered crowd! By this time even the girl in the bikini is no surprise!

The singing is superb from the principal ladies: Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Marina Poplavskaya, Eliana Bayón and Itxaro Mentxaka. Roberto Alagna is not always convincing to look at, he seems to be in a fog over something and looks quite glassy-eyed - though who wouldn't be beside this Carmen? - but he sings superbly. Up against Uria-Monzon's ultra-passionate Carmen his detachment stands out. Erwin Schrott as Escamillo, never dressed as a bull-fighter, simply in a suit, is excellent, as are the singers of all the smaller roles.

Carmen is about unbridled passion, lust, revenge and murder, all set against a backdrop of the poor under-classes of society. No wonder the 1875 audience at the Opéra-comique questioned its suitability for their theatre. Calixto Bieito, the director in Barcelona, has recaptured the shock of this music and has gained the support of a mostly brilliant cast and one super-star performer, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, who will leave you speechless with admiration as she leads this excellent cast. Despite the radical production, buy this, you will not regret it.

Dave Billinge

A startling, but gripping and coherent production, with a superb Carmen and excellent all-round cast and orchestra.