A False Start
'Carmen' at La Scala,
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
For the Italian audience, and especially for the Italian press, to praise the opening night of La Scala season is almost a National Duty, with capital letters. Thus, your 'chroniqueur' will be, most likely, considered odd: as an Italian music critic, he dares to explain to an international readership why Bizet's Carmen [seen 4 December 2009] was a false start, as staged in Milan's Opera Temple, on St Ambrose night, at a price of 2,400 euros per orchestra and central box seats.
Carmen is one of the most frequently performed operas all over the world. Consequently, a La Scala première would be expected to be top-notch both dramaturgically and musically -- a standard that many theatres would love to achieve but very few would be able to. Instead, the production is quite weak dramaturgically and leaves a lot to be desired musically. I do not know if after nearly fifteen performances in Milan (from 4 December to 23 December 2009 and from 29 October to 18 November) and a possible revival in Berlin's Staatsoper unter den Linden, a DVD will be produced. If so, it is likely to show an inferior production if compared with the 2006 Royal Opera House DVD with Antonio Pappano's conducting, with the stage direction of Francesca Zambello and with Anna Caterina Antonacci, Nora Ansellem, Jonas Kaufmann and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo in the main roles.
Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen and members of the chorus in Act 1 of the 2009 La Scala Milan production of 'Carmen'. Photo courtesy of Teatro alla Scala
The key flaw of La Scala's production is Emma Dante's concept of the opera. She is the stage director; her previous experience is nearly all only in experimental theatre. For her, Carmen is not a drama of passion, sex and dissolution but a parable about women's lack of defense in a man-dominated world. In the first Act, for example, soldiers beat up even pregnant female cigar factory workers. In the fourth, before stabbing Carmen to death, Don José rapes her on stage in front of an immobile crowd of priests, choir boys, town people, and even gendarmes. The plot develops in some Southern town, not necessarily Seville. The place looks like Palermo. The time of the action is undefined; certainly not the nineteenth century because the costumes are nearly contemporary. There is a huge number of extras (mimes, dancers) on a stage crowded by religious symbols as well as by priests, nuns, choir boys and the always present image of Death (again with a capital letter).
Erwin Schrott (Escamillo) and Jonas Kaufmann (Don José) duel in Act 3 of the 2009 La Scala Milan production of 'Carmen'. Photo courtesy of Teatro alla Scala
Musically, things are better than dramaturgically. Maestro Barenboim dilates the tempos. The orchestra has a round sound and single instrumentalists -- eg the flute in the introduction to the third Act -- have their day. In short, Barenboim's Carmen has the right musical tint. Erwin Schrott and Jonas Kaufmann are Escamillo and Don José, with a lot of experience. Carmen is Anita Rachvelishvili, just graduated from the Accademia della Scala (the opera house's music school). An attractive mezzo, she has, no doubt, potential. I wonder whether she was engaged too early for such a demanding role. Adriana Damata (Micaela), also a recent graduate, is a lyric soprano with a clear timbre but a small voice. The rest of the cast is good (especially Michèle Losier and Adriana Kucerová). The French pronunciation of most of the singers is ok.
The Jonas Kaufmann (Don José) and Anita Rachvelishvili (Carmen) duet from Act 2 of the 2009 La Scala Milan production of 'Carmen'. Photo courtesy of Teatro alla Scala
Mr Kaufmann is 'covered' by Riccardo Massi, a young graduate from Accademia della Scala, who sang Don José on 4 December because Kaufmann was ill. Massi has a long way to go before becoming a credible Don José: he had difficulties in nearly all the arias. An Opera House like La Scala ought to have contracted a more experienced 'cover' for the key tenor role in a repertory opera such as Carmen. The outcome was bad for both Mr Massi and the 4 December audience when most of the press was accredited. In fact on 7 December 2009, the theatre will be crowded with politicians, high level officials, magistrates, financiers, industrialists and ladies in their best long dresses and with their most beautiful jewels.
Let us hope for a better outcome of the other eleven operas in the 2009-2010 season.
Copyright © 7 December 2009