Brahms and Tchaikovsky agreed only on one thing: they both adored Carmen. The new production of Bizet’s evergreen masterpiece at Covent Garden is the best of a score of them that I have seen. It is also the best work I have seen by Franscesca Zambello; the designer is Tanya McCallin.
Orange is the colour of the snow (not videophone!). The dark red plush curtains of the Royal Opera House are replaced before the curtain rises by orange ones. The scenery is likewise orange. A vivid orchestral prelude tells us that the French pianist Bertrand de Billy is no goat but a capable conductor. Welcome is the use of the original dialogue and a few bits of linking material that will be new to some.
The production is commendably straight, respects the composer and has imagination. The melodrama comes across, pleases your mind and hits you where it should do. Act One was memorable for the singing and disposition of (I guess) some thirty-five children, singing delightfully/raucously. The set includes a watergutter with real H20 and there is a live horse on stage and a donkey which behaves as it should (and not as it shouldn’t). In Act Two brigands scud up and down walls and in the last act there is a splendid procession that includes a wonderfully kitchy catholic becandled cart complete with a mouthing priest fore and a Madonna aft. When I mention that the cast includes Liping Zhang/Micaela, Changan Lim/Morales and Eri Nakamura/Frasquita you can tell that the Management has scoured the Orient and Africa for singers. (Nice to see Eri again, she was the star of a young artists scheme, performed here who we praised her Manon.)
Alas, Micaela was not quite up to it, whilst Ildebrando d’Argangelo reminded me of the story if a Beecham audition when he asked the aspiring Escmilo of he was auditioning for the part of the Toreador or the bull. Elina Garanca as Carmen was a presence of fiery nature, a real mankiller and a formidable performer if not quite the singer of one’s dreams, often mistaking volume for intensity, of which fault Roberto Alagna was also guilty. His Flower Song was lusty but charmless. But when Don Jose has to turn from being lyric to a dramatic tenor in the last act he came into his own. Despite being a half-head snorter than Carmen she was dispatched as to manner born! The grown-up chorus matched the kids.
Any quibbles ? a few details missed: those bumping/string pizzacati in the quintet, the G string turns on the violins could not be heard but Bizet’s masterly use of percussion came out well, the tambourine in Act Three and the clacking castanets (it seems that no Carmen to-day can be bothered to learn to play them and has to be helped out in the pit).
The production glowed, fired and exploded as it should, on this occasion, the 523rd performance in this house, a performance worthy of its composer. What a masterpiece it is every egg a bird! Every detail showing a master and wonderful counterpoint, deftness, charm and passion in number after number.