In 1989 entrepreneur Harvey Goldsmith followed up his Aida of the previous year with a spectacular production of Bizet’s Carmen in the amphitheatre at Earl’s Court. This is a sports stadium like venue that seats 19,000 and a cast of 400 or so singers, dancers and supers was employed. The production was revived in 1999 when It was broadcast by Tyne-Tees Television and has been available on DVD ever since. Continue reading
Francesca Zambello’s Carmen for the Royal Opera House has more going for it than is immediately apparent. On the face of it it’s a very traditional, conservative production; period costumes, literal sets, hordes of kids in Acts 1 and 4, live animals, but a close look reveals rather more. Zambello reveals her intentions during the overture where we see a manacled, distraught Don José dragged to execution by a masked executioner. This is going to be Don José’s story rather than one that focuses almost exclusively on the title character. What we see here is a stark contrast between what Don José really wants; respectability, an obedient wife, conformity with the Church, honour and what key choices, accidents and conflicts drive him to; criminality, liminality, execution and, we may suppose, damnation. The staging subtly highlights each of the key moments in Don José’s descent; his arrest and demotion in Act1, the fight with Zuniga in Act 2 and the realisation, in Act 3, that Carmen will never be the women he really wants reinforced by Micaëla’s aria that ironically offers him the choice he can no longer make and does so unmistakeably in terms of Catholic eschatology. There is so much more going on here than a sexy woman and some pretty tunes.
The cast is stellar. Anna Caterina Antonacci is a pretty spectacular Carmen. She’s a very accomplished singer but it’s her acting that shines here. She steers a very fine line just short of playing Carmen as a complete slut. Like many things in this production, it’s a detail that makes the difference. Jonas Kaufmann sings Don José. He starts off very prim and proper, almost coy, becoming wilder as the piece progresses. This is signified not just by his acting and vocal style but also by a progressively degenerate hair cut. It scarcely needs saying that he sings very well. He has beautiful high notes coupled with a rather baritonal lower register. It’s not a classic opéra comique voice but it’s lovely to listen to. The rest of the casting is in the luxury bracket too. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo is a sinewy, almost rough voiced Escamillo but he oozes testosterone and totally commands the stage. The chemistry between him and Antonacci in Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre is very strong. Norah Amsellem is perhaps a bit mature sounding for Micaëla but she sings and acts extremely well. Her big number in Act 3 is brought off very well indeed. Matthew Rose is a bluff straightforward Zuniga and in a final bit of luxury casting Jacques Imbrailo plays the rather small role of Moralès. The orchestra, conducted by Tony Pappano, plays rather suavely though not without vigour. The overture is so loud I initially thought I had my volume levels set wrong! So, musically excellent across the board though in my ideal world there would be more difference in tone colour between Carmen and Micaëla.
The video direction is by Jonathan Haswell. It’s OK but not great. He’s good in the big crowd scenes, letting us see what is going on but gets some nasty attacks of closeupitis later in the piece. The knife fight between Escamillo and Don José is particularly distracting. There’s no real excuse as the stage set isn’t huge and he’s got an excellent 1080i picture to work with. The sound options on Blu-ray are PCM stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. On the surround track the voices are balanced well forward but it’s quite vivid, if not quite as spectacular as recent PCM 5.0 releases. I think that uncompressed, unprocessed audio will likely become the norm on Blu-ray in the opera market. There are English, French, Spanish, german and Chinese subtitles and a booklet with a short essay, track listing and synopsis. There are no extras.
Here’s the final scene of Act 3 as a sampler:
This production, with a different cast, is also available as a 3-D Blu-ray disk (for all those opera fans with 3-D capability at home?!?). That version features Christine Rice and Brian Hymel. I haven’t seen the disk but I did review the cinema release about a year ago. The only advantage it offers is the contrast of a genuine mezzo as Carmen and a lighter soprano as Micaëla.
It’s funny how one can see a work many times but miss what may or may not be an important detail. I just watched the first act of Carmen for the umpty-umpth time and heard something the significance of which had never struck me before. There’s an exchange between Zuniga and José quite early on that goes roughly as follows:
Zuniga: Vous êtes Navarrais?
José: Oui, et un bon Chrétien!
Are we being told that José is a Carlist; for what else could a Navarrese of respectable peasant stock who draws attention to his religion be in such an era? Is so, what are we to make of it? Is this an additional deliberate signifier of the gulf between respectable, pious, legitimist José and bohemian, pagan, anarchist Carmen?
Or am I just making a sierra out of a molehill or stating the blindingly obvious? Whatever I find it odd that I missed that detail on all previous watchings.
Yesterday lemur_catta and I flogged out to the wastelands of North York to watch Carmen in 3D at the Empress Walk multiplex. It was a very different experience from a crowded Theatre 1 at the Scotiabank for the Met HD broadcasts as there were only about 20 people in the theatre. This is understandable enough as this one wasn’t live and is playing twice per day for a week.
The performance was recorded earlier this season at the Royal Opera House. It’s the Zambello production that was released on DVD and BluRay by Opus Arte with Anna-Catharina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann in the leading roles. This recording uses a much younger and less well known cast. Christine Rice plays Carmen, Bryan Hymel is Don Jose, Maija Kovalevska sings Micaela and Aris Argiris is Escamillo. The conductor is Constantinos Carydis. So, very much a repertoire revival cast and thus perhaps an odd choice for a high risk venture such as ROH’s first foray into 3D but see general comments about opera films below.
The production is very conventional; period costumes, animals (including a horse in a bar) and so on but it’s directed in some detail and by no means a repertoire “park and bark” performance. It’s fine if unexceptional. So what does 3D do for it? When it’s used with restraint it definitely adds a sense of depth. It’s never “realistic” as it gives more depth than would ever get sitting in the house. Even up in the nosebleeds there is more foreshortening than in the broadcast. The real trouble is it isn’t used with restraint. Give an opera video director a gimmick and they will go nuts. They are bad enough without gimmicks. We had acrobats tumbling into the audience, confetti apparently falling on the first few rows of the stalls and, weirdest of all, close up disembodied head, or head and torso, shots of singers apparently floating over the orchestra pit. This peaked during Micaela’s final aria where she got a sort of Joan of Arc like treatment made weirder by the fact that as they faded back to a more realistic shot there was “real” Micaela clearly on stage and “radiant” Micaela floating around in the ether in front of her. The technology also seems to cause a few focus problems in unexpected places. In contrast to the visual exaggerations the sound stage was quite flat. It might almost have been a good stereo recording from the 1960s and it was much more restrained than the close miking used in the MetHD broadcasts. I think that’s a plus but it was somewhat at odds with the visuals. There was generally less distortion than on recent Met shows too. I’m not sure whether that’s a function of the theatre or the recording or the fact that Carmen isn’t an especially noisy opera.
So with the usual caveats about reviewing singing on a recording here are my thoughts on the performances. Christine Rice was very good indeed. She is a genuine mezzo which I think is preferable in this role and she sang with a lot of passion. She also has the looks and the acting ability for the role. There were definite echoes of Maria Ewing there. Bryan Hymel was fine as Don Jose. He is very much a lyric rather than a dramatic tenor so musically it was quite different from hearing Kaufmann in the role but quite appropriate. He, too, acted well and looked the part. Chemistry between the two was pretty good though not perhaps as smoky as Kaufmann and Antonacci. Maija Kovalevska made a very appealing Micaela. She manages to look and sound like a young girl which few singers in the role manage. She sang sweetly and accurately and it made for an interesting dramatic point. This Micaela is no match at all for Carmen as a woman, as an object of desire (though she is certainly pretty). She really does represent the respectable life that Don Jose rejects. She’s totally believable as the little girl from the village that his mother wants him to marry. That’s an aspect of the plot that rather gets lost with a more obviously mature Micaela. Watching parts of the Antonacci version again points this up. A soprano Carmen opposite a more mature and powerful Micaela (Norah Amsellem) doesn’t have nearly the dramatic contrast. The one disappointment in the casting was Aris Argyris’ Escamillo. He sings well enough but there’s no swagger. He just doesn’t convince as the toreador who Carmen falls head over heels in love with. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo on disk shows how it should be done! Orchestra and chorus and the minor roles were all fine. Overall, I’d say it was a good but not a great Carmen. There are better versions available on disk (Ewing for example or Garanca (my review of the HD broadcast) if you buy into the “Carmen in love with Death” vibe of that production) but it’s worth seeing or, of course, the Antonacci/Kaufmann version of this production.
So, another opera house gets on the cinema bandwagon with “3D” rather than “Live in HD” as the USP. What are they trying to do and are they succeeding? Is it supposed to increase the audience for live opera? Is it just an additional revenue stream? I don’t think there is any evidence that the former is happening and we are told that the Met is just now breaking even (in season 5) on its broadcasts. No consumer goods company would willingly launch a product that took five years to reach break even. I don’t think they know what they are trying to achieve. They seem to me to be like IT firms who have management consulting arms and can’t make up their minds whether they are a profit centre or a loss leader for integration work. Strategic clarity is rare!
This lack of clarity has practical consequences. If the aim is to bring more people into the theatre then, clearly, the product should represent the live experience as faithfully as possible. Close ups of the principals’ tonsils are only going to mislead the person who does show up to the opera house and is looking at the stage from the Upper Circle. The sound values too are going to create a false impression of what an opera house sounds like. Anyone who has been following my reviews of opera in cinemas will know what I think they need to do; faff about less and give us more of a “best seat in the house” view of the show. One wonders in fact whether opera company GMs bother to check out what their product looks and sounds like in a movie theatre.
Conversely, if the product is a stand alone film for a new audience I don’t really see the need to record live productions. There have been plenty of films of operas and they have used a variety of “tricks”. One can film on location (and have the singers recorded in the studio and lip synched too if one like). One can use actors who look the part and dub in the voices. One can use singers who are visually the part but too lightweight for the role in the opera house. All of these things have been done more or less successfully in the past. Perhaps, ultimately, the big thing about just documenting a live performance is that relatively little extra expense is involved.
I guess, bottom line, I’m not totally convinced by the whole “opera in cinema” thing. I think it could be very good if they put the video directors on a tighter leash but right now I think one is better off going to see a live show, even if it’s a bunch of young enthusiasts with a few video projections in a disused warehouse. I’ve got at least as much pleasure and insight out of shows by Opera Erratica and the Royal Conservatory as out of 9/10 star studded, multi million dollar production broadcasts.
For reference, here’s the annoying Blu-ray trailer:
Last night lemur_catta and I braved the blizzard to see students from the Glenn Gould School and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra perform at Koerner Hall. The bill was two French one act comic operas; Bizet’s Le docteur Miracle and Ravel’s L’heure espagnole. Both have extremely silly plots but rather lovely music.
The Bizet piece concerns an officer who is in love with the mayor’s daughter (or maybe his wife, or maybe both. This is French opera) and wins her hand by disguising himself as “Docteur Miracle” and “curing” the mayor who thinks he has been poisoned by an omelette. The omelette gets a lot of air time. In last night’s version heavy use is made of three ballet dancers with omelette making headgear. I have no idea if this idea is original or in the libretto but it was very funny. It’s a pretty conventional early classical piece musically; arias for the soprano, tenor and baritone leads and a lot of ensemble numbers. The dialogue is spoken. It was generally well sung with the stand out being the daughter, a coloratura soprano part, played by Jennifer Taverner. The ensembles worked well except that the very young looking tenor, Zachary Finkelstein, was somewhat underpowered and tended to disappear. Solo, his voice was pleasant enough, if light. Pretty decent performances from baritone Maciej Bujnowicz and mezzo Danielle MacMillan as the mayor and his wife. Excellent work from the orchestra and conductor Uri Mayer.
After the interval we had the much more modern sounding L’heure espagnole by Ravel. In this piece the clockmaker’s wife takes advantage of her husband’s day out fixing the municipal clocks to find a lover. This is complicated by the arrival of a muleteer who needs his watch mending. She gets him out of the way by having him haul clock cases from the shop to her bedroom and back. At various points her two would be lovers; a dull grandee and a verbose poet are concealed in the clock cases and a lot of singing takes place through windows in the front of the clocks. Finally she decides that someone who can tirelessly haul loaded clock cases up and down stairs may have more of what she is after than the other two and takes the muleteer off to bed, sans clock. The work concludes with a quintet confirming that it is, indeed, the muleteer’s day. The work is heavier in tone; through sung and fewer set piece numbers. Bujnowica and Finkelstein appeared again as the lovers but the stars were the bluff, strong baritone of Todd Delaney as the muleteer and Leigh_Anne Martin’s strong soprano as Concepcion. It’s the sort of role that one could easily imagine Anna Netrebko singing and Martin managed the same sense of sly, sexy fun that Trebs brings to roles like Norina. Tenor Andrew Byerlay played the clockmaker. This is a much more musically complex work than the Bizet and uses a pretty large orchestra. I didn’t think the orchestral work was as crisp as in the Bizet but it was fine really.
Koerner Hall is a visually lovely venue with acoustics that help everyone. It’s really pleasant to hear and watch opera in a venue that size, 1100 seats, where every seat, pretty much, is a good one and the sound is excellent. All in all, a fun evening. I’m more and more convinced that I would rather see young artists having fun and really trying to put on a show than watch rather bored experienced professionals do their 200th performance of a work in a routine production in a big opera house. There’s another show on Friday night and decent seats are only $30 so think about it!
The COC crowd were out in force and I spotted Alexander Neef, Simone Osborne and Ambur Braid among others in the audience. One has to give credit to Mr. Neef. He spends a lot of time talent spotting young singers. I guess, given his background in casting in Paris, it’s not so surprising.
This time it’s the 2002 Glyndebourne production by the inimitable David McVicar. Anne Sofie von Otter sings the title role with Marcus Haddock as Don José. The production is quite restrained by McVicar standards though the final scene is gruesome enough and Carmen and Don José make out more enthusiastically than in some other productions. It’s in appropriate period costumes and is pretty enough to look at without being ‘different’ in any significant way.
My first impression was that maybe von Otter was getting a bit old for Carmen (though I imagine that one would notice that less in the theatre) but I quickly changed my mind. Her singing is, as ever, flawlessly stylish and she really throws herself into the role. This really is the girl who never loves for more than six months and doesn’t give a damn about anyone. It’s also an amazingly, and effectively, slutty performance. Really von Otter steals the show. Marcus Haddock is an effective foil. He’s bluff and physical and not nearly as wimpy as, say, Alagna. He doesn’t have the glamour of Kaufmann either which is probably a plus in this interpretation. Vocally he’s rock solid. Everybody else is fine but this is the von Otter/Haddock show.
Carmen is very well served on DVD and I would be hard pressed to say this was better than the Antonacci, Ewing or Garanca versions but it’s definitely up with them. This one is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Opus Arte.
Here’s the Gypsy song from Act 2.