Oh, Carmen!

Dead Roses (c) Mark Tyson

(c) Mark Tyson

It is entirely possible that I was just not in the right mood last night, but I have to say that my spirits were not enlivened by the Royal Opera’s performance of Carmen. Having seen Francesca Zambello’s production a number of times over the years, I’d not really admitted just how absurd it is before now, what with the donkey and the horse for no reason other than gratuitous spectacle, together with a good deal of rather over-laboured ‘Spanishy’ dancing, on top of the perennially irritating children’s chorus that is built into the score. Maybe it was only more evident because the performance didn’t, on this occasion, ‘fly’.

Alright, so the absence of Kaufmann as Don José didn’t help, though frankly what he could have done to transcend the evening’s various inconsistencies, I don’t know. I was quite warm towards Andrea Carè when he debuted at Covent Garden in Nabucco, but I’m afraid I didn’t warm to his rather generalised presence as Don José, even allowing for a late replacement and the challenge of replacing so ‘headline’ a name. His tendency to start any significant note at a lower pitch and ‘ratchet’ it up became increasingly irritating. Anita Rachvelishvili is a fascinating voice, and had bundles of stage energy, but I’m not sure this was her role: for one thing, the French was decidedly indistinct and oddly intoned. The impressive force of her mezzo at the extremes sounded more right for Azucena, and in fact I felt during the gypsy encampment scenes that I was watching a presentation of Azucena’s racy backstory. Sonya Yoncheva was pre-eminent on stage, deploying her robust and attractive soprano to make much of Micaëla’s hardening in the face of Don José’s rather implausible new infatuation. And on the subject of implausible infatuations, the Escamillo of Gábor Bretz was rather too cultured and lightweight for the famed bullfighter. As Zuniga, Nicolas Courjal built on the success of his Gesler in last season’s Guillaume Tell: dramatic, with vocal flexibility and, perhaps inevitably, French that was notable in its contrast with others. I thought the Royal Opera orchestra sounded brash under the rather hasty and harried conducting of Alexander Joel.

All that said, the Saturday night audience seemed to enjoy it so maybe I’m being a curmudgeon. The drama did ultimately reach the expected pitch between Don José and Carmen for the last act, and the closing scene in particular was a useful reminder that, for me at any rate, the power of this work is in the coming together of its strands at the end (that observation à propos of me nearly going home at the interval!). However, that makes it a long evening of over-exposed rum-te-tum tunes in the run-up.

I think I’ve had my last Carmen for quite some time, and most definitely in this dull production. Although, I said that last time, but then allowed myself to be tempted back (at £43 for row F side Amphi, I might add!) for Jonas Kaufmann: might be worth me reflecting on that ‘star-vehicle’ strategy ahead of my future opera bookings…

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