Let’s get out of the way that I fervently dislike Francesca Zambello’s Carmen for the Royal Opera, it is the usual large opera house production, all baked terracotta walls, running water and pointless appearances by animals. It has not aged very well and the obvious lack of dramatic heft in the production is either made up by excellent casts that add their own personality to it or it just ponders on as a bunch of badly reproduced postcards of Goya portraits and tonnes of oversized Seville oranges (complete with orange tree, of course). The brusqueness of her use of the chorus and the unnecessary amount of stage noise touches on the vulgar. Particularly in the prelude before the opening of Act Two, the heavy stomping (as we know, clumsy stomping translates as passion) drowned out any delicacy left of Bizet’s luminous composition.
The leading couple of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Roberto Alagna must have so many hundreds of performances under their belts making one suspicious to get a prescriptive and superficial interpretation . But on the night the chemistry between the two of them was undeniable, Antonacci looked at him, charmed, arrogant, full of pity and fearless. He looked back with devotion and charm, with a certain vulnerability and intensity that was the perfect answer to Antonacci’s deeply felt and committed performance. Every one of her recitatives had meaning, every word was enunciated with exemplary clarity and style. The most telling was her warm delivery of the habanera, an all too frequently chance for singers to hoot like cheap prostitutes, she made it a beguiling study in characterisation with just enough suggestion and sex appeal. And of course warmly inflected vocalism that was parlando enough to make every one shut up and listen. A Carmen that did not dominated the stage with crudity and noise, but with suggestion, humour and charisma. All the men on stage are meant to fall instantly in love with her but also did the audience.
Alagna may have sounded sharp at the start but he eased himself into a very generous and well acted partner to the astounding prowess of our leading lady. The finale (despite the ham-fisted direction) was incredibly tense and well acted. Not in the league of Bieito’s incredibly vivid production but a good example of two great performers that can create magic out of directorial crumbs.
Special mention has to go to the supporting cast with Ashley Riches being a playful Moralès and Veronica Cagemi who despite being miscast she made all she could of Micaëla’s challenging aria in Act Three but unfortunately almost run out of steam during her short duet with Don José soon after. Unfortunately the Escamillo of Vito Priante had a total personality bypass, giving a terribly pallid stage impression regardless of the honestly ridiculous entrance on a horse. Judging by the reactions around me everyone paid attention to the horse but not to the singer.
The conducting of Daniel Oren was so dreadful to make one wonder why is he being repeatedly booked by Covent Garden, if he is not generic he is outright bad. The tempi in the first half were wayward and sluggish, the transitions laboured and all the spark was made into a dull semblance of Iberica.
That Antonacci manages to pull off her arias without any major incidents was down to her trying to speed up proceedings with her singing…surely a dreadful day in the office for any singer if they have to modulate the performance by dragging the conductor to follow them. Her intense gesturing during Les tringles des sistres tintaient looked almost as a desperate attempt for Oren to notice that he had singers on the stage.
The orchestra overall sounded bored and any apparent gleam from the strings had turned into a muddle. To give him a modicum of credit after the interval things sped up a notch and felt less embarrassing to be hearing their output. But one has to wonder why the management of the ROH will go and book two well known singers only to give them a hard time with such uninspired and provincial conducting, surely there are many others that could conduct a reliable and fluid version of the score out there.
Some tweets from the night