Bizet: Carmen

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 14 June 2010 3 stars

Sarah ConnollyYou know it must be summer when three separate productions of Carmen are staged simultaneously in London. Alongside the all-singing, all-dancing, cast-of-thousands extravaganza at the O2 Arena, and Opera Holland Park's small-but-perfectly-formed offering, is another revival of Francesca Zambello's beloved production for the Royal Opera House. Coming hot on the heels of a night at Holland Park, I was curious to revisit this budget-busting behemoth of a production (complete with horse, donkey and chickens) and see whether, alongside fresh competition, it still merited its numberless appearances at the Royal Opera.

Glorying in its widescreen scope, Zambello's is a Carmen that wears its budget on its billowing gypsy sleeve. After a surfeit of starkly pared-down offerings of late (ENO's Katya Kabanova and Lucia di Lammermoor to name but two) there is something infinitely comforting about the visual excess that Zambello so generously spreads out for the delectation of her audience. The opening tableaux – though a trifle polite and well-scrubbed – is a French nineteenth century painting brought to life. A placidly gratuitous donkey idles gently under an orange tree, soldiers lounge against the walls of their barracks eyeing-up passing females, and a chorus of small urchins – 30-strong at least – dart and quarrel, before launching into an impressively choreographed chorus number. Marshalling her vast forces with an eye to the big picture, Zambello manages to tread the line between achieving impact and overwhelming the intimate story at the heart of the opera. Her rather stolid set, dominated throughout by its high walls, was the one issue in a production that for the most part replaced grand architectural gestures with cleverly choreographed use of crowds and props.

Opera Holland Park's orchestral approach, though full-bodied and impetuously appealing, was a little lacking in finesse, something that was to be had by the bucket-load at the Royal Opera in Constantinos Carydis' pit. Defying the hackneyed ubiquity of its tunes, he brought such elegant phrasing to the folk-inspired string melodies, whittling and spinning them until they were plausible as the Art Music they so patently aren't. Similar gestures of phrasing permeated the singers' interpretations, and while impeccably lyrical and impossibly tasteful, I was left just occasionally wishing for something a little more grubby.

Top-billing among the cast of this revival went to Christine Rice – a newcomer to this production. With her solid technique and lively stage presence she has appeared previously at the Opera House as a witty Concepcion and a powerful Judit, and it was only a matter of time before she tackled Carmen. Musically it would be hard to fault her. Possessing both the range and the tone-colour the role requires, she at no point seemed less than comfortable and utterly in command of the music. What was most unexpected however was her bravery in not overplaying things. So often I come away from a Carmen feeling aggressed by the lead performance, but here I was drawn in by Rice's clever use of dynamics, even a cunningly deployed mezza voce on a couple of a occasions.

Dramatically Rice made for an unusually light-hearted Carmen. Capturing her capricious humour and playfulness, she was warmly captivating throughout Act I. As the story progressed however and more steel was called for, her good-natured performance occasionally seemed a little too wholesome, and it was hard to believe her capable of such ferocious heartlessness. I was distracted throughout by comparisons to the previous night's Carmen at OHP (the alternate Carmen, Hannah Pedley). Vocally nowhere near as polished, she brought a cruelty and a narcissism to the role that made real sense of the plot, pulling off that greatest feat of making melodrama seem not only plausible, but inevitable.

American tenor Bryan Hymel (most recently seen in London in ENO's revival of Anthony Minghella's Madame Butterfly) is a singer to whom I struggle to warm. Faced with the vertiginous challenges of Pinkerton he sank, and while his Don Jose had all the notes in the right place, his strangely swallowed vocal tone still makes for uncomfortable and rather tense listening. Painfully gripped in the upper registers, it has a tendency to bleat at moments of emotive intensity, a challenge for anyone trying to blend with him. To her credit, Maija Kovalevska (Micaela) seemed undeterred, and their Act I duet emerged pretty much intact.

Kovalevska herself is a welcome addition to the cast. A little more knowing than is perhaps desirable in a Micaela, she nevertheless breezed through the rather stiff role, exhibiting a powerful and well-controlled soprano that was every bit the match of Rice's mezzo. Rounding out the principal men was Greek baritone Aris Argiris as Escamillo. Overshadowed by the magnificent horse on which he first entered, he delivered a solid vocal performance, if not quite the equal of his lady-killing, bull-slaying character.

This is a production whose every outing continues to proclaim it the classic it has so quickly become. Extroverted, honest, and just sexy enough to set the ROH pacemakers aflutter – Zambello's Carmen is the ultimate start to the summer.

By Dominic McHugh

Photo Credits: Bill Cooper line

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