Monday, May 04, 2009

Kaufmann's Carmen

Prompted by a favorable Opera News review, Chez Buce took a flyer on the new(ish) Carmen from Covent Garden in 2006-7. We'd rank as, if possibly not the best, then still the most remarkable Carmen we've ever seen. There are a lot of good things about this production. You've got sprightly and energetic conducting by Antonio Pappano, who (is it he?) also manages to extract a full measure of spooky otherness from Bizet's distinctive harmonies. You've got a fine chorus, with a well-developed sense of the dramatic, and some wonderful costuming--I can't remember ever seeing a chorus where so many choristers looked like individuals with their own stories to tell. You've got creditable performances from Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (as Escamillo) and Norah Amsellem (as Micaëla)--neither role easy to make convincing or interesting. Recognizing that so much quality does not happen by accident, this must all count as a triumph for Francesca Zambello as the director.

Or I suppose you could say "directress." Much has been made of the fact that this is a woman's Carmen, but if so, it is all the more ironic that the runaway success of the performance is Jonas Kaufmann as Don José who just owns this show from curtain to curtain: I've never seen anyone come close to squeezing so much juice out of this clueless, benighted and hormone-driven young nee'er-do-well. Maybe the remorseless combination of blind lust and masculine dopiness is something only a woman (director) could undertand. Whatever: Kaufmann has it nailed, with all the qualities of emotion and character that you are just never going to find in, say, that prince of all operatic tenors, Placido Domingo.

Which leaves Anna Caterina Antonacci in the title role and this is a more complicated case. You've got to like her, and want to root for her: she's got a lovely voice, and she's obviously worked hard to pay her dues here, with impeccable attention to detail (others have commented on her careful French). The trouble is, she just isn't Carmen: for all her effort, she can't seem to bring up the hunger and the ferality of this ultimate opertic bad girl. It's a bloody shame, and you might not even notice if her Don José wasn't so remarkable.

It might be that "two" would be "too much" here. It strikes me that I've never seen a performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth in which both the title character and his lady are well played. This may not be an accident: maybe a fully cast Carmen, like a fully cast Macbeth would be just more than the audience could stand.

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