May 22, 2008

ACA's Carmen

London, Royal Opera House
Broadcast of the Dec.19, 2006 performance
DVD also available
Pictures of the production there

Carmen : Anna Caterina Antonacci
Don José : Jonas Kaufmann (role debut)
Michaëla : Nora Amsellem
Escamillo : Ildebrando d’Arcangelo
Zuniga : Matthew Rose
Le Dancaïre : Jean Sebastien Bou
Le Remendado : Jean Paul Fouchécourt
Morales : Jacques Imbrailo
Fraquita : Elena Xanthoudakis
Mercedes : Viktoria Vizin

Conductor : Antonio Pappano
Director : Francesca Zambello

Anna Caterina Antonacci
© 2006 by Catherine Ashmore

At last a production that captures the true essence of an opera…

Francesca Zambello’s view may seem unoriginal on the surface (simple set, costumes that could have been seen in Paris when Carmen was created in 1875, choreography true to the Spanish/Gypsy atmosphere), yet it’s the first time I’ve seen such a care to portray Don José as he was intended in Bizet’s mind.

In June 1872, the Opéra Comique in Paris ordered a new opera to Bizet, who chose to build the story based on Prosper Mérimée’s novel, Carmen (1845). If the librettists Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy were excited by this choice, the minister Adolphe de Leuven was horrified by it: it was unconceivable, according to him, to see a dramatic ending in the Opéra Comique, as well as depraved and low-life gypsies.
After all, this House was the place of choice for families and wedding arrangements.
In order for the piece to be accepted, Bizet was urged to change the ending into a happy one (which he refused) or at least to make Don José more lovable by introducing a new and pure character, Micaëla, his childhood sweetheart.
In the composition of the opera, the distinction between the arias of Carmen and Micaëla is obvious, the latter singing in the usual Opéra Français style (duet “Parle-moi de ma mère” in Act One for instance), while Carmen is granted with the Spanish connotation.

The Opéra Comique is also responsible, by the way, for the spoken parts in the piece (which I don’t think add anything to the story).

The audience at the premiere included Délibes, Gounod, Massenet, Offenbach, Thomas, Alphonse Daudet and Alexandre Dumas-fils. Yet the piece was a huge failure, as the libretto was too shooking and the music too awkward.

In any case, Carmen was build around an aggressive and mean Don José, and nowadays, almost all the productions of this piece portray him as a kind soul whose only fault is his jealousy.

Well, Francesca Zambello took on Bizet’s approach, and Jonas Kaufman, with his dark voice and rustic appearance was indeed the perfect tenor for this (although I was very sceptical in the beginning). We’re miles away from the crystalline singing of Nicolaï Gedda but this approach definitely made me revisit what I expect of Don José. How often can a production alter for the best the perception you have of a piece, seriously?

The children’s chorus was full of life and extraordinary realistic, and I also loved the first silent picture of Don José (during the overture), handcuffed, dirty, visibly disoriented and in despair, holding the faded rose Carmen once gave him and being taken away to die. A simple idea, yet perfectly describing the essence of this opera in just a few seconds.

I know Londoners don’t like it when someone dares to criticize Antonio Pappano and his conducting, but I have to say his interpretation lacks the flamboyance of Georges Prêtre’s and I’m not sure being a singers’ conductor turns out to suit this work: it slowed down the rhythmn at times, and the rhythmics is paramount in this piece.

© 2006 by Catherine Ashmore

Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (or Michelangelo, as I call him) was a powerful Escamillo (even if bringing a magnificent horse on stage didn’t really bring anything to the production, it was fascinating to watch him sing while riding it). The score is not really his cup of tea, and neither is the French language, but his stage presence is always outstanding and made up for his weaknesses.
Nora Amsellem was a weak Micaëla with way too much vibrato everywhere; the two gypsies Elena Xanthoudakis and Viktoria Vizin were pretty good, especially the latter.

The Carmen of Anna Caterina Antonacci is simply extraordinary.
She has the fire in her eyes to own the character from the very first few seconds; her stage presence is phenomenal and suits exactly the role, her acting skills are brilliant, her French diction is perfect and her singing is amazing. What more can you ask for?

So obviously people, I will try and see her in Toulouse next April…

YouTube extracts of this production:

- Carmen’s Habanera, " L’amour est un oiseau rebelle "
- Carmen, gypsy's song "Les tringles des sistres tintaient"
- Carmen & Don José, final duet "C'est toi, c'est moi"
- Don José, "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée"
- Escamillo, Toreador's song, "Votre toast, je peux le vous le rendre"

© 2006 by Catherine Ashmore

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