Georges Bizet
Opéra Comique, Paris

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Act 1: The seduction begins, Andrew Richards (Don Jose) and Anna Caterina Antonacci (Carmen) Credit: Pierre Grosbois, Opera Comique
Act 2: The seduction complete Credit: Pierre Grosbois, Opera Comique
Bullfight fans, the Monteverdi Choir Credit: Pierre Grosbois, Opera Comique

Never chase after a bus, my dad used to say, because there will be another Carmen along soon. Or so I remember. This one, anyway, would be worth waiting for.

Despite so many versions to choose from, I found myself comparing this from the Opéra Comique, for which it was composed, with a recently viewed broadcast from Paris Opera down the road.

The latter had a dream cast, Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna, but whereas that Calixto Bieito production was typically brutal, set amid a modern underworld of dodgy car-dealers and racketeers, director Adrian Noble eschews such foibles for something much closer to what Bizet had intended. The result is warmly romantic and convincing, if slightly lacking intensity at times.

Noble presents the piece with considerable attention to the dramatic performance of his singing actors. Retention of much of the original spoken dialogue in the brilliant libretto, rather than use of its oft-preferred recitative replacement, explicates the story more clearly, especially in regard to the debt that Carmen feels she owes to Don Jose.

Opera singers can sound stiff when required to talk on stage, but not here. Being directed by the former boss of the Royal Shakespeare Company surely helped.

Mark Thompson responds with a colourful design that is not exactly Spanish, but Spanish-ish, and a single set that is transformed by Jean Kalman’s clever lighting for the tavern scene, the bull ring and most strikingly for the gipsy camp.

The first act is the least successful in the production. Soldiers and then urchins face the audience, not each other, and the cigarette girls disport themselves at the front of the stage, less like a chorus than a chorus line. This isn’t Oliver! I found myself muttering. Perhaps the relatively small stage is a factor.

Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci’s is suitably seductive in the title role, strutting about, scratching Jose’s face as she makes her escape, but with the witty sarcasm and calculation too that set her apart from the other girls. Her snarl on the word ‘rien’ as she defies officer Zuriga made me think of Edith Piaf.

The role, which does not over-extend the soprano range, is perfectly suited to show off the vibrancy of her voice, she speaks her lines well, and gaily tosses off the top note in Pres des remparts de Seville.

She is not however the most passionate of Carmens. Her opening aria, L’amour est un oiseau rebelle, is prettily sung, with effective timing, but offering little flammable material. She could be singing about the scenery, or her mum.

Don Jose can come across as a bit of a wimp. Not American tenor Andrew Richards, sporting a natty pigtail, who triumphantly portrays his complexity, making the character just as forceful as Carmen herself.

In his flower song, his perfectly held high pianissimo B♭ just before he confesses his love, shows how completely he is besotted, but he is man enough to stand his ground in the act 3 confrontation to make the relationship entirely credible.

Then in the final act, in a nice directorial twist, he is reduced to the appearance of a tramp, found skulking in a corner, repulsive, pathetic and deluded as he begs Carmen, dressed in all her finery, to go away with him. It remains, however, something of a mystery why, in this production, she so easily submits to her fate.

Nicolas Cavallier as Don Escamillo has all the dashing vulgarity of a pop singer on stage, working the crowd by bringing out the staccato bravado and legato sentimentality of the toreador’s song. One can feel from the commentary in Bizet’s music what a dullard the fellow would be when not killing bulls.

Anne-Catherine Gillet is wonderful as Micaela. There is a shimmering brightness at the top of her range, and her interpretation of the text was outstandingly good, such as in the act 3 highlight, Mon guide avait raison, where the voice soars as her courage mounts for the confrontation with the gipsies, but ends on a velvety soft note of uncertainty.

The woodwinds of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique are prominent throughout, but although sensitive to Noble’s overall vision of the piece, I felt that conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner lacked the rhythmic attack that the most Spanish passages require. His Monteverdi choir were however excellent, not only vocally, but in their movement and response to the drama.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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