Carmen becalmed

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If the new Carmen at Covent Garden is to be judged by the number of bums it will put on seats, we should consider it a rip-roaring success.

Francesca Zambello’s production is a crowd-pleaser, with long-life potential that is certain to repay the initial investment.

If, however, it is judged by the insights it provides into a well-worn musical drama, it is a non-starter. I have never come across a production with less “attitude” towards Bizet’s gypsy.

The leading characters are almost irrelevant to Zambello’s staging. Once you have taken in the Velázquez-inspired beauty of Tanya McCallin’s designs, with Moorish walls and period costumes ravishingly profiled by Paule Constable’s lighting, you start to wonder when the production is going to progress beyond the visuals.

It never does. Carmen, Don José and Escamillo are bit-players next to the donkeys, horses, dancers, acrobats, abseilers, disabled children and washerwomen that throng the stage. This Carmen belongs in Earl’s Court or the Royal Albert Hall, not an opera house with artistic ideals.

It’s a generic Carmen. Is Bizet’s gypsy a serial seductress or not? A free spirit or housewife-to-be? One of society’s outsiders, a precursor of feminism? Zambello doesn’t even ask the questions. Covent Garden is too dependent on the box office to take a risk with such a popular opera. It needs a cash cow. The result is a Carmen that shamelessly panders to popular taste. The artistic balance-sheet is tipped back in the Royal Opera’s favour by the company’s music director, Antonio Pappano, who gives this most familiar of scores the least hackneyed of interpretations.

Pappano and his orchestra – playing with a bloom never witnessed in the “new” Covent Garden – inhabit Carmen in such a way that you fall in love all over again with its sultry tunes, its shimmering heat, its swagger and sweetness. The supercharged energy of the overture sets the tone: it’s not the flailing energy that has crept into some of Pappano’s other work. And throughout the evening there are moments when, without detracting from the stage performance, he makes us aware of Bizet’s breezy accompaniments.

Whether all this is the result of his reconfiguration of the orchestral layout, I don’t know. But you won’t hear a more exhilarating account of the score. The quality of musical preparation is equally evident in the choruses, which find the ensemble in peak condition (chorus director: Renato Balsadonna). Just one reservation: why cut the opening scene of the final act?

There is one star performance – Jonas Kaufmann’s Don José. Handsome without trying to look macho, he portrays a naïve man unable to control his passions. Kaufmann is a natural actor, wearing his innocence easily but masculine enough to make a believable suitor.

What sets him above all other interpreters I have heard is his singing. Although the voice has heroic edge, he uses it lyrically: the “Flower Song” is sustained in a way that marries sentiment and line. Kaufmann is a stylist, betraying none of the fragile temperament associated with tenors. Could he be Domingo’s heir? Several times during this performance I thought so.

Another plus is his chemistry with Anna Caterina Antonacci, the best partnership in this opera since Agnes Baltsa and José Carreras. It’s not an animal attraction, partly because Antonacci gives us an understated Carmen, true to the origins of the role.

She looks pretty, has a winning smile and sets the part halfway between youthfulness and maturity. Her Carmen is not a house-filling personality – the production doesn’t give her the chance, and Antonacci doesn’t have the voice – but nor is she a cliché. It makes you wonder what she could do with a more creative director.

Norah Amsellem’s ordinary Micaela is the only singer with less than intelligible French. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Escamillo lacks charisma.

Tel +44 20 7304 4000. Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on December 26. Co-production with the Norwegian Opera.

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