Zambello’s Carmen

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.

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9 thoughts on “Zambello’s Carmen

  1. Thanks for the review. It was my favourite Carmen until I say Elina Garanca in the Met production. She swept me away

    • I must get my hands on the Garanca DVD. I saw the HD broadcast and recall it as an intriguing but distinctly unconventional treatment very much centred on Garanca’s Carmen. She was so cold; a Carmen in love with the idea of Death perhaps?

  2. Yes, this was excellent. I have seen two Carmens in the past year but no Don Jose’s worthy of her. I do like Kaufmann, so I will give this a look.

  3. Oh, I love this Carmen! It really is the Don Jose Show. I thought it was really clever and interesting to start the opera with him being dragged off to his execution, as well as to show his psychological disintegration through his hair. Sounds silly, but it really worked. Course, Kaufmann’s curls seem to be good at dramatizing…

    I really liked Antonacci in this role. Her Carmen is downright vicious; I didn’t like her at all. I felt absolutely no sympathy for her at all, in the end.

  4. Lovely review of a great DVD! Must write my own very soon!

    PS. There should be a law that Don Jose must have thick, curly hair that gives a performance of its own the way Kaufmann’s does. 🙂

  5. John, based on your review I got this and really enjoyed it. I have been going to opera in NY since the mid 70s and had never seen a really good Carmen (one of my favorite operas). Usually the production is crap, or the Carmen or Don Jose stinks. I really like this performance because the two principals are great–even though the close-ups show ACA’s age–but I would see this woman in anything, she is a truly great and unique singer. I like the focus on Don Jose since he is actually the character who changes. The physical production is not offensive. Saw the Met Carmen in the house and hated it–its the Spanish Civil War and grim–wow that’s creative. Was hoping Carmen would enter holding the head of John the Baptist–you will get what I mean when you see it.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. I saw the Met Carmen in the HD broadcast. I quite liked it but more for Garanca’s unusual interpretation than anything else. She’s the coldest Carmen ever. It’s like she’s in love with Death from the very beginning. It come across well in the cinema but might well have looked very different in the house.

      • I would agree on the cold part–aside from the fact she is a beautiful woman I couldn’t see why any man would go near her, at least in this staging. I sat in the Balcony (where the accoustics are really good) and found her Carmen “small” and largely inaudible during the card scene. One of my problems with the HD broadcasts is that all voices are created equal–you get no idea for the size of the voice or how it projects (in what is an absurdly large house). Unlike many Met productions (the Ring,) I won’t say I would never go see the current Carmen but it would take singers like ACA and JK to tempt me.

  6. Pingback: Carmen : de la femme fatale à la figure de liberté (part.4) |

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