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You could have read it in the cards: a new production that was dubbed ineffectual in December, cancellation of the singer of the title role, a second cast sharing little in style or background. Fate had not dealt this revival a strong hand.
When the singer of Carmen pulled out two weeks ago Viktoria Vizin, who had sung the smaller role of Mercédès before, found herself unexpectedly promoted to head gypsy. There could easily have been worse replacements. The young Hungarian mezzo has charms that have not had time to fade – attractive looks, slim physique, winning smile and a bright voice with interesting colours – and in other circumstances a fresh spirit who has not slipped into the tired old routines would be just what was needed. Unfortunately, Francesca Zambello’s production gives her no help at all. What it needs is some battle-scarred old trouper of a Carmen to kick some life into it.
At least the conductor, Philippe Augin, is on his Carmen’s side. He also favours light, fresh Bizet and gets elegant playing from the orchestra, even if he is rarely keen to look into the dark spaces of the drama behind the notes.
Marco Berti’s heavyweight Don José belongs in another kind of performance entirely. He sounds uneasy singing in French (a couple of passages of his dialogue were replaced by the old, sung Guiraud recitatives) and looks uncomfortable in the world of French realism, which lies so much closer to everyday behaviour than so-called Italian verismo, where melodrama is a way of life. His forte – nay, his fortissimo – is a voice that goes into overdrive at the top. The searing passion that blasts out of his top notes certainly supplied some of the high drama that was missing elsewhere.
The Micaëla of Liping Zhang was beautifully sung, but bland even for this milksop character. Laurent Naouri’s Escamillo flourished vocal style a-plenty along with his toreador’s cape, but would not frighten Daisy the cow. The smaller roles are modestly taken. It was hard to believe in any of it.
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