Record Review: George Bizet's Carmen - Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Everyone knows Carmen. Whether you are a lifelong opera fan, or have briefly overheard one of the tunes in the backdrop of a television advert, some element of this operatic triumph will have affected your life. So when a company announces plans to stage Bizet’s masterpiece, both excitement and fear begins to emerge within theatrical circles. It is a title which easily sells out runs, but every producer will want their production to stand out as more than an easy commercial hit. Every company will feel the pressure to make their attempt memorable for the right reasons, however, there could not be more pressure than the potential scrutiny laid on the cast and creative team behind the 2009 production at the Opera Comique in Paris, the theatre where the opera originally premiered, 125 years earlier. I just watched the production on a Blu-ray disk distributed by Naxos Records, and I am pleased to say that it exceeds all expectations.

 

One key aspect of the production which I noticed throughout is just how tight and slick everything is. The overture was taken at a faster tempo than usual, slowed down at the ‘Toreador’ melody, before returning to the main melody with its fast tempo without an accelerando. It is risky decisions like this, where the orchestra could so easily crumble if not impeccably rehearsed, that conductor Sir John Eliot Gardener has managed to make a score with the most famous overture ever written sound fresh. Equally, the singers are the best at their craft and the frequent antiphonal exchanges between soloists and the ensemble, men and women or singers and the orchestra are all confidently delivered with style. Their harmonies are rich and changes in dynamics are masterfully nuanced, and their brilliant sound is perfectly captured by the producers at ‘Radio France’ who recorded and mixed the DVD. Every essence of being inside a theatre is achieved. I cannot stop thinking about the famous homorhythmic ensemble interruptions during Carmen’s Act 1 aria ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’; the echo left resonating was intoxicating. All sorts of vocal timbres are sustained over the footage, such as the offstage ensemble who interrupt the frantic Don Jose in Act 4. Not only was it audible, its unique sound, different to the onstage singing, had such a haunting tone that I was terrified when Don Jose banged his first in agony against the set in a vain attempt to shut up their mockery.

 

Another thing which pleased me immensely is the fact that the performers can actually act! The necessity for operatic triple threats has always been subject to debate, but I have confidence in the recent rapid progression away from an era of stars who would stand centre stage to sing their aria or duet and that would be that. Not only are the singers in this production acting, they provide dramatic variety, depth in their characters, and most impressively of all...subtlety. In particular, I must commend the two leads Anna Caterina Antonacci (Carmen) and Andrew Richards (Don Jose) for a performer relationship so strong that I could feel their descent from frivolous romance to bloodthirsty tragedy even in the moments when they were not singing. This is a privilege for the audience, an added bonus not even required, for when they do sing, you are immersed thoroughly into the story and characters by the emotion in their voices. You can watch the opera with subtitles if you like, but you don’t need to. You understand it all despite it being in French.

 

This streamlined focus on the score is aided by the simplistic staging. Stage director Adrian Noble and movement collaborator Sue Lefton opt for minimal amounts of movement and choreography, instead placing large groups of performers on stage who stand, sit, or gradually move around. It is impactful but not overwhelming or tacky. A wonderfully eerie example was in Act 3 when a group stood behind Carmen in the dark as silhouettes when she read signs of death in tarot cards, building the sense of claustrophobia needed for Don Jose’s return in Act 4. The set is also quite simple, with no revolve used to change sets between each act, relying instead on props and lighting to present the different locations. Jean Kalman’s lighting design gradually changes from an exotic collage of reds, oranges and browns to illuminate the vibrant, smoky cigarette factory in urban Seville, to a palette of morose blues, purples and blacks to submerge the characters into their tragic demises. If there is one thing that unites the singers, musicians, directors and designers, it is their ability to create an atmosphere. 

 

It was a pleasure to spend an evening watching one of my favourite operas performed so well. Theatres have been closed for too long and I have really missed the excitement of sitting in an auditorium, but honestly, my living room felt like a dress circle thanks to how excellently this production is recorded and mixed. Everyone can enjoy this production; for regular viewers, this is high quality opera for a fraction of the price of an opera ticket. For new viewers, this is the perfect production to introduce you to the genre, highly engaging and not too experimental. Furthermore, along with the DVD, buyers are provided with a small handbook which contains a list of the movements, a detailed yet concise plot summary and a biography of Bizet. I highly recommend this latest release by Naxos records. It’s a night at the opera to never be forgotten.

The Blu-ray Disc is available to purchase from Naxos Direct, Presto Classical, and other online media stores. 

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