Bizet: Carmen

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, London, 23rd January 2014 2 stars

Christine Rice as Carmen in Carmen © ROH / Catherine Ashmore 2013In the programme for Bizet's Carmen, Kasper Holten (Director of Opera at ROH) remarks that the title character is a mysterious figure, and that "we can never really know who she is". This seemed ironic: even at the end of the opera, I was not left with a clear idea of which aspects of this complex character (or, indeed, of Don José) this production wanted to bring out.

First aired in 2006, this is the sixth outing of Francesca Zambello's staging of Carmen. The production worked best when it observed the light-hearted elements of the opera alongside its darker aspects: for much of the evening, it seemed to take itself too seriously. Even though it attempted to delve into the psychological complexities of the characters, the production instead offered only shallow and unconvincing depictions. Zambello's probing meant that the characters were ambiguous, and ultimately hard to engage with. The other key aspect of the production was its spectacular approach, and this too was flawed. Although entertaining, certain elements felt gratuitous (the religious procession, for example) and added little meaning. In many ways, the production felt tired.

Taking place against an unobtrusive backdrop of terracotta walls, Zambello's production left ample space for the drama and passion of Bizet's opera. Although the performance picked up dramatically and musically towards the end, I found it lacklustre. For much of the first two acts, the chorus were little more than a static tableau, and even Rice's Carmen felt strangely contained. Daniel Oren's limp conducting did little to help matters. He often opted for slightly sluggish tempi, preventing the performance from gaining energy. This wasn't helped by the orchestra of the ROH, whose playing lacked the crispness needed for Bizet's clear textures. The 'Chanson bohème' which opens the second act was an exception, with the conductor whipping the orchestra into a swirling frenzy. Even if the stomping and cheering of the gypsies may have disrupted the clarity of Bizet's textures, I was glad to see a little more dynamism on stage and in the pit.

Despite her sultry, dark tone, Christine Rice's Carmen felt too controlled for a character repeatedly referred in the libretto to as the devil. Her seductive Habanera felt rather too polite, and even in the final confrontation, Rice seemed apathetic rather than defiant. Carmen was not the free spirit we have come to love: instead, she appeared tame. Although Carmen gained presence throughout the opera, I was still left confused by the character's identity by the end. In an attempt to emphasise her mystery, revival director Duncan MacFarland had actually stripped Carmen of her defining characteristics. However, even Rice's luxuriously creamy sound couldn't compensate for the vagueness of her character.

Despite having performed Don José several times previously, the young South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee seemed less than secure in the role. Especially in the first two acts, his upper range felt strained and the ends of his phrases often seemed slightly abrupt. He was slightly tentative in his portrayal of the jealous lover, and lacked Rice's assurance in the confrontations between their two characters. Although his voice may not have reached its full maturity, Lee offered some wonderful moments, and his upper range in the final act was undeniably glorious.

If the two leads may not have been completely convincing, Sarah Fox's Micaëla and Kostas Smoriginas' Escamillo helped to compensate. Fox created a genuinely likeable and convincing character, with her Act 3 aria one of the performance's most enjoyable moments (complemented by some pleasingly mellow French horn). Even if her voice lacked the power of Lee (she was very slightly overpowered in their duets), her vibrato and sympathetic portrayal meant that she was an engaging presence. Smoriginas' portrayal of Escamillo worked well, offering a forthright alternative to the neurotic and needy Don José. He gave a solid and assured performance, and did much to lighten the mood.

The contribution of the chorus left much to be desired. Hissing vowels and tuning issues were rife, and the ensemble ragged. They often lagged behind the orchestra (an affliction which struck many of the soloists, too).

Ultimately, the performance was inconsistent, lacking energy and conviction. Many elements of Zambello's production proved problematic, and I left the ROH unconvinced.

By Katy Wright

Photos: Royal Opera House