The Royal Opera opened its 2008-2009 season with a performance of Don Giovanni for which the tickets were made available through the Sun newspaper as a reader offer, heavily subsidised by The Helen Hamlyn Trust. Entitled ‘the Paul Hamlyn First Night', the initiative, which was designed to entice new audience members to the Royal Opera, was a great success, with 90% of the attendees never having been to an opera at all before. The Royal Opera House has just won the ‘Classic FM Innovation Award' for its efforts, and the initiative was repeated for the first night of this revival of Carmen and will also operate for the first night of the Royal Ballet's revival of Mayerling later this week. Upon entering the theatre, there was no doubt that the audience demographic was different from usual, and although this led to some exasperating behaviour amongst some of those seated near me, such as tapping of the feet and fingers, and humming along to the famous tunes, it was also an immense relief to see how much they were enjoying themselves, and to be reminded that there are legions of people out there to help keep what can seem like an impenetrable art-form alive, vivid and popular.
An inability to resist a little foot tapping was perfectly understandable, so spirited and rhythmic was Bertrand de Billy's conducting of the opening of the overture. His tempi throughout were well-judged, and he kept things taut, even at such moments as the introduction to Carmen's chanson bohème where the dancers were consistently ahead of his beat. The orchestral playing, aside from a rather graceless flute solo in the entr'acte before Act III, was full of colour and life, pointing up the local colour in Bizet's score, and filling out into a grand romantic sweep when called for. The chorus was impressive for its rich timbre and beautifully handled dynamic range, particularly amongst the sopranos, although the whole ensemble would have been even more impressive had their French been pointed up with greater clarity.
Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča performed the title role with some considerable success. Vocally, Carmen is a good fit for her lyric instrument even if, perhaps because she is conscious that it lies towards the outer limit of what she can healthily take on with her voice, she came across as rather careful. There was much to enjoy in her silky legato singing and generous top notes, as well as the sheer beauty of her gorgeous sound, but the role cries out for more indulgent and expressive use of chest voice, particularly in the reprise of the Seguidilla and the card scene. Dramatically, she captured Carmen's elusive spirit well, and she made a convincing journey through all 4 acts, but the recourse to one particular gesture in Acts I and II, namely the lifting of her skirts with her bent legs set wide apart, was so frequent that it lost its impact and meaning. Director Francesca Zambello would have had an even stronger leading lady for her show had she done more work with Garanča on creating a more varied physical vocabulary for Carmen.
Roberto Alagna, as Don José, gave a more spontaneous, heart-on-sleeve performance that communicated his character's dilemmas, infatuation and descent into near madness with intensely moving immediacy. The youthful freshness in his Act I dialogue with Micaëla was followed by an utterly disarming flower song that was at once confessional and passionate. The abandon with which he acted and sang in Act IV was remarkable, and led to a thrilling dénouement.
As Micaëla, Liping Zhang gave a touching portrayal and sang with great tonal beauty, and although the sense of fear and trepidation came across well in her aria, a greater breadth of line and a slower tempo would have made for a more satisfying rendition. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Escamillo characterised the torero's swagger well, but seemed a little under-powered vocally, and less than entirely at ease at his entrance in what is a rather high aria for a bass. Amongst the smaller roles, Eri Nakamura's Frasquita must be singled out for the ease with which she carried off the top lines in the ensembles, and the zest she brought to her characterisation of the gypsy.
Zambello's production rightly places the interaction of the individuals at the forefront with few distractions at key moments, using dancers, actors and animals to conjure up atmosphere where called for. Tanya McCallin's set design works well for Act I, but the same set's use, variously rotated for the remaining acts, seems a little perfunctory, particularly in Act III where one can't argue that at least such a device depicts a unity of architectural style amongst the different locations within Seville. Still, as a framework for the drama, it succeeds.
The overall impact of this Carmen was dramatically engaging with high quality musical values, and it was very well received by the audience, but only Alagna really caught fire and took his performance to a genuinely thrilling level. As Garanča grows into her role throughout the run, she will no doubt get closer to Alagna's level of spontaneity, which should make for a more arresting, memorable performance all round.
By John Woods
Photo Credits: Catherine Ashmore
Interview Roberto Alagna
Interview with Elina Garanca, who plays Carmen in this production
DVD Review: Jonas Kaufmann in the original run of this production
Opera Review: A revival of this production in 2008