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.
The production was designed and directed by Steven Pimlott and makes interesting use of the space available. It’s mostly a series of concentric rings. There’s a main performance area in the middle; sometimes with a deep pit and and ramp to facilitate “centre stage” entries and exits. Around the central area there is a rotating wooden track and beyond that are various tunnels for exits and entrances. In Act 4 there is a stage off to one side one which a flamenco performance takes place watched by the rest of the cast.
Where the orchestra is is anybody’s guess. What we can see, quite often, are strategically placed TV monitors of the conductor, Jacques Delacote. Setting aside the production is fairly conventional with period costumes and straightforward story telling backed up by spectacle; dancers fill the vast stage area, the smugglers abseil in to surprise Zuniga in Act 2, the procession of toreadors features multiple horses and Escamillo is in an elaborate horse drawn carriage with Carmen and the other “ladies”. There is an extended Flamenco performance interpolated at the beginning of Act 4.
The performances are a bit mixed. It all centres on Maria Ewing’s Carmen. It’s a classic Ewing performance; weird and fascinating (or likely infuriating depending on your views on Ewing)) and certainly never dull. I love it but your mileage may vary! Miriam Gauci sings a very fine, if slightly mature sounding, Micaela and Alain Fondary is forceful and convincing Escamillo.
The weak link is Jacque Trussel’s Don José. He’s very one dimensional as both a singer and an actor and can be quite unpleasantly nasal. Basically he honks, very loudly, for most of the time. The orchestra is the National Philharmonic and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus fills that role. Co-ordinating the forces involved must have been nightmarish and at times ensemble is decidedly ragged but I think that’s only to be expected. So, overall, this is OK musically but in a sense that’s secondary to the element of spectacle.
Gavin Taylor does a pretty decent job with the video direction. Mostly he gives us a “high in the stands” perspective which works quite well but he varies his angles and depths as needed to keep us where the action is. He even managed the difficult task of filming the very dark third act effectively. All this despit working with a TV quality 4:3 picture that doesn’t really have the resolution needed to capture the busier scenes. The sound options are Dolby 5.1 and 2.0. The surround sound isn’t wonderful. Some of the problem is probably the acoustics of the space but there are also marked changes of level and a few drop outs and overall the balance is problematic. Subtitles are Eglish only and the documentation is limited to a chapter listing.
If one is a Maria Ewing fan this is a must see otherwise probably not so much. It’s certainly far from the best Carmen recording available.