Carmen, Paris Opera (Bastille)

Ten years. A whole decade since Bizet’s masterpiece was last seen at the Paris Opera. So goes the marketing blurb, but had anybody really noticed? Performances at the Opéra Comique and the Châtelet had in the meantime quenched the punters’ thirsts for unbridled Spanish passion. The real question is why, in a season with only three new productions, intendant Nicolas Joel chose to finance a new version of a repertoire lollipop rather than reviving Alfredo Arias’ perfectly adequate 1997 staging and spending the money on some more original venture.

It has turned out a costly mistake and an artistic disaster. The director, Yves Beaunesne, is a man of the theatre set on saying something new. His is a movida Carmen set in the 1970s after Franco’s death, a tribute to emancipated woman heavily influenced by the mood of Pedro Almodóvar’s films. Lillas Pastia’s tavern is a cool den starring an immensely tall drag queen while the smugglers hang out in sheepskin coats and flared trousers like refugees from the student union.

But it was news to me that the movida was also obsessed with bikes. Micaela cycles in gamely on one that has covered miles from her home town but is still in tip-top condition and the smugglers are also avid cyclists despite the mountainous terrain. Now we know why Spain has proved so efficient in the Tour de France.

The update is silly and superficial but still sabotages the opera’s message. The original Carmen stood out as a rebel; she was not part of a sweeping liberation movement but a pioneer. Beaunesne fatally diminishes her singular appeal, leaving her to be upstaged by the flamboyant drag queen and coiffing her with a ludicrous ash blonde wig. Anna Caterina Antonacci looks miserable in it, a washed-out matron rather than a magnetic vamp. And though her diction is as razor-sharp as ever, she treads carefully through the score as if trying to stop vibrato running out of control.

Nikolai Schukoff’s Don José is lithe, handsome and vocally out to lunch. Not announced as indisposed but sounding it, his junior Heldentenor is in any case too grey and gravelly and his phrasing too choppy for the role. Good French is not enough and the sexual chemistry he could have made with Antonacci fails to flare.

That leaves Ludovic Tézier’s excellent Escamillo in a Starsky & Hutch suit with generous lapels and Genia Kümeier’s exquisite Micaela. She saves the show just as she did at the Châtelet in 2007, garnering loud cheers at curtain call while Antonacci, probably for the first time in her career, met with some booing. Beaunesne appeared, without his production team, to thunderous abuse but Philippe Jordan’s iffy conducting – over-refined, self-regarding and at times so slow that the music almost ground to a halt – was rapturously applauded.

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