It's salutary to think that both of London's opera houses' current staging of Bizet's Carmen is directed by a woman. It's surely no coincidence: Carmen remains the very embodiment of operatic Otherness, the title role offering perhaps the most interesting, complex and controversial depiction of a woman in the whole canon, and therefore it was an interesting prospect to entrust the piece to someone of the same sex, rather than perpetuating the work's production history, which has placed Carmen in the male gaze.
No less interesting was the fact that both productions opened to very mixed reviews – downright pans, indeed, for Sally Potter's version for English National Opera, which attempted to strip back the clichés and re-engage with what Bizet originally set out to do. Some critics perceived that she had replaced one set of clichés with another, and felt that what she had done was incoherent with the text (though personally, I found Potter's imagination and visual flair highly refreshing).
The opposite was the case when Francesca Zambello's production for The Royal Opera opened at Covent Garden in December 2006: 'too traditional', roared some of the critics, proving that they're never happy. This new DVD of the original cast, broadcast by the BBC over Christmas 2007, is an excellent memento of the production in its most sparkling condition, where the time spent with the numerous extras – including a large chorus, sizable group of children and live animals – as well as in focusing the Personenregie, really paid off. It hasn't looked quite this good since.
In Zambello's production, the tension is where it should be – in the inexorable but suffocating attraction between Carmen and Don José. On DVD especially, one can really see the increasing despair of José as he turns his back on the regulated society to which he belongs and the wildness of Carmen, who is determined to remain as free as the bird she mentions in her signature aria. The casting is stronger from the dramatic point of view than the musical one, but maybe that's the right priority for an opera that was built on a strong literary foundation. Zambello and Antonio Pappano, the conductor and Royal Opera Music Director, also seem to have chosen the text according to dramatic impact rather than musical faithfulness, with a mixture of recitative and dialogue, as well as some cuts that will upset purists but make a potentially long work more digestible, as Zambello said in interview with me in the week leading up to the production's opening.
There are some nice imaginative touches – Micaëla dons a soldier's jacket during her rather insipid aria to heighten the sense of fear she has undergone to travel to the gypsy camp, and at the beginning of the opera we see José lying prostrate on the ground, as if the whole piece is one long flashback – but on the whole it's plain cooking that serves the opera, and the public, very well. Tanya McCallin's designs have been quite heavily criticised but the burnt orange walls are surely a fitting evocation of Seville; many of her costumes are particularly beautiful, such as Carmen's splendid yellow dress for the final scene, even if the girls coming out of the cigarette factory aren't exactly flattered by what they're given to wear.
I must confess that it slightly knocks things off balance that the performance is dominated by Jonas Kaufmann as José, rather than the title character. I haven't seen Kaufmann in such electric form before or since, and the DVD's primary value is in preserving a near-ideal role assumption. The physicality of his performance renders the sometimes two-dimensional José into a more interesting creation; as the plot progresses, his appearance becomes more ragged and rough, so that in the thrillingly-acted José-Escamillo duet there's a palpable feeling of danger in the air. I've heard more vocally secure and accomplished renditions of the 'Flower Song', but even as the catch in his voice causes a moment of uncertainty at the height of the vocal arch, it's so obviously born of emotion that the performance is still moving.
Like Kaufmann, Anna Caterina Antonacci (in the title role) sports impeccable French, so that the spoken dialogue – often embarrassing when delivered by opera singers – really crackles as it should. When José and Carmen are alone just before the end of the first act, as well as during the post-Flower Song duet and the finale of the whole opera, the tension between Antonacci and Kaufmann is superb, and she sings her short aria about fate in Act 3 very poignantly. However, I'm afraid the vocal allure seen in the finest interpreters of this role is lacking, so that while Antonacci does a more than competent job, it's not the most excitingly sung Carmen on record by a long way.
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo falls in the same category for me: he's credible as the character but is a safe pair of hands rather than a great Escamillo, from the vocal point of view. Similarly, Norah Amsellem is heartfelt but not the most polished Micaëla. In fact, some of the smaller roles are more notably sung: Matthew Rose and Jacques Imbrailo, two ex-Young Artists, do an excellent job of Zuniga and Morales, and both Elena Xanthoudakis' Frasquita and Viktoria Vizin's Mercedes stand out, the latter taking over the title role for the Cast B performances.
Conducting without a baton, Antonio Pappano derives sensuality from the orchestra and alter singing from the chorus. Yet for me there's a need for a little more abandon than Pappano is prepared to give, especially in the first two acts. Something seems to happen in Act 3, where the voltage of the orchestral playing gets much higher, and those final stabbing statements of Carmen's chromantic 'fate' motif in the strings just before her death show us what could have been achieved elsewhere. For pure refinement, though, you can't beat Pappano's approach, and his empathy with the singers during the more intimate moments make them more prominent than the usually rousing crowd scenes.
Shame on Decca for releasing the DVD with no extra features to speak of. I don't know why it was deemed unnecessary to transfer what I recall as being an interesting introduction and interval documentary involving Pappano during the television broadcast; at the time, I felt more connected to his interpretation of the work by hearing him talk about it, and I think it's a shame to have presented this in so bare a form.
Nevertheless, the HD Widescreen 5.1 Surround Sound is immaculate, and Kaufmann's large fanclub shouldn't wait to get hold of the DVD.