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Dramatic Essentials

'Carmen' from Paris,
enjoyed by ROBERT HUGILL


Carmen was premièred at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1875, though the present building dates from 1898 following a disastrous fire in 1887. The theatre is a relatively intimate one and rather smaller than many of the theatres where Carmen is often performed. For their new production [seen 28 June 2009] the Opéra Comique turned to a British team: director Adrian Noble, designer Mark Thompson and conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner. The orchestra being Gardiner's own Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique alongside his Monteverdi Choir. The edition of the score used was the new performing edition by Richard Langham Smith.

Editions of Carmen are problematical as the composer died before he could publish a definitive full score. If the composer had lived, the form of the opera may have been very different, after all Bizet would have had to produce a version which satisfied the demands of larger, foreign opera houses. As it was, Ernest Guiraud did this, adding recitatives and ballets. Langham Smith's edition goes back to the vocal score published by Bizet and other materials from his life-time. It uses, of course, spoken dialogue, and the main musical differences are the inclusion of the scene with the English woman and her elderly husband early on in Act I and the longer version of the duel between Don José and Escamillo in Act III.

Bizet removed and changed a lot of material during the protracted rehearsal process and it used to be assumed that some of these changes were at the behest of the singers. But opinion is now settling on Bizet's vocal score as the closest we can get to a definitive form of the opera.

Mark Thompson's set consisted of a striking fixed structure. There was no backdrop or cyclorama, the theatre was open to the rear wall. Instead Thompson created a circular balcony at first floor level, made of wood and concrete, rough unfinished ends wrapped round the base of the proscenium arch. Dressed different ways, this formed the acting area for all four acts.

Into this rather plain, distressed structure, Noble and Thompson introduced a range of characters all dressed in what might be termed costumes of toned down naturalism. There were no dancers, no supers just the Monteverdi Choir and the children's chorus in Act I. This was a production which concentrated on the dramatic essentials. The results evoked Spain without ever veering towards the picaresque, a fault which often bedevils productions of this opera.

Thompson's set of Act I placed Carmen's workplace below the stage. As the curtain rose, a mirror above the stage allowed us to watch the girls working whilst the male voice chorus sang and sometimes leaned over to look down at the girls. The chorus was enlivened with occasional local characters and here I think that Noble went a little too far to create local colour; combined with the choruses' consciously Spanish makeup and clothes, the result was a little too stagey. Luckily this settled down and the drama developed and later sections of the opera achieved an expressive stripped down naturalism.

If the production team was British, then the cast was international. Carmen was played by Italian mezzo-soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci and Don José by American tenor Andrew Richards.

Antonacci's Carmen was sexy and direct in a quite forceful way. This was not a Carmen who was picturesquely flirtatious, but who made her first appearance covered in sweat and baring a remarkable amount of flesh. Antonacci's slightly flat directness meant that her view of the character held the two halves of the opera together; too often the flirty, sexy, folkloric Carmen of Acts I and II seems to be in a different opera from the fatalistic one of Acts III and IV. Not that Antonacci's Carmen was low key; she was just rather more direct in her sexuality and kept the 'flower clenched between her teeth' moments to a minimum.

It helps that she sings the role beautifully. In this relatively small theatre she didn't have to force, and accompanied by the sixty strong period group, balance was ideal. There was no sense that the famous arias were show pieces, Antonacci integrated them into the drama. For Act 2, the tavern was evoked just with lighting and piles of cushions, the dancing being done by members of the hard-working chorus, Carmen's solo being given the feel of a local event rather than a big production number.

As her Don José, Andrew Richards was perhaps a little too placid. At the crucial moment when Don José attracts Carmen's attention in Act 1, Noble relied on dramatic lighting to concentrate solely on the principals. You never quite believed the coup de foudre which was supposed to have happened; but given that it did, Richards was brilliant at conveying the bottled up feelings of someone who struggled to express himself. Moments like the flower song came across more powerfully as hard won moments from a character that was not overly demonstrative.

This feeling of being bottled up and close to breaking point was beautifully conveyed in Act III and led to Richards' brilliant incarnation of the desperate and broken Don José in Act IV. Here he and Antonacci were searing in their final scene, made all the more so by it being beautifully sung.

The remaining cast members were on the same high level. Anne-Catherine Gillet was a Micaela who was totally believable as young and naïve but strong girl. Her transition from Act I to Act III was natural and convincing. She brought both strength and beauty to her vocal line.

Nicolas Cavallier was a suitably swaggering Escamillo. The favourable balance worked in his favour during the toreador's song, when his lower notes were rather firmer than can often be the case in this role. Matthew Brook made a strong Zuniga who luckily never veered into caricature and Riccardo Novaro's Morales benefited from the edition as he got extra music in Act I. Virginie Pochon and Louise Innes were attractive as Frasquita and Mercedes; they made good foils for Antonacci's Carmen and the three were brilliantly contrasted in the Card trio in Act III.

Noble had cut the dialogue quite considerably. This was to great benefit in Act III which lost most of its lighter opéra comique moments, though it meant that the roles of Le Dancaire and Le Remendado (Francis Dudziak and Vincent Ordonneau) were rather reduced.

Noble's production made full use of the multi-level set, using the upper level for many entrances and exits, having the smugglers climb to the upper level by ladders and so on. The results were dramatic and atmospheric without ever feeling Noble was padding the stage with folk-lore. This stripped down feeling was at its strongest in Act IV. There were no extra personnel on stage; Noble relied simply on the dramatic and narrative skills of the chorus to bring out the descriptions of the corrida. And for the final duet we had Don José and Carmen alone together in a bull ring -- a telling detail in a production notable for its careful detail.

The Monteverdi Choir were the hardworking chorus. In two or three places Noble relied on their extensive dramatic skills to enliven quite static stage pictures and some of the singers played smaller roles in the opera. But it wasn't just about dramatic skills: they sang beautifully too. Granted, they don't sound like an Italian theatre chorus and probably not much like the chorus that Bizet heard in this theatre in 1875. But there is no denying their musicality and infectious performance. The children in Act I were provided by the Maitrise des Hauts-de-Seine and the young singers acquitted themselves well.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner opened proceedings with a fast and dramatic account of the overture. From then on there were no major revelations, no striking discoveries, simply a good feel for pacing and the shaping of Bizet's orchestral palette. The orchestra, numbered around sixty (roughly the size of the original Opéra Comique orchestra), were fine accompanists, revelling in Bizet's melodies.

For their new production of Carmen at the theatre where it was premièred, Noble, Gardiner and their team offered no radical new insights. Instead they gave us strong insightful musicianship and a carefully crafted and thoughtful account of a score which can easily become hackneyed.

Copyright © 2 July 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK








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