There was more passion going on in the row in front of me at Friday night’s Carmen then on stage. The young couple – she: pretty, green chiffon dress with a shoulder strap that wouldn’t stay in place, big cascade of hair; he: slender, tanned and been told by his mother since birth that he was the most gorgeous boy on earth – cuddled, cooed and had a disagreement during the 3 hours we spent at Caracalla. Would that we had seen half that much passion on stage!
But of passion there was little evidence in conductor Karle Mark Chichon’s interpretation of Bizet’s best known work. His approach was flabby and lacked any sort of zest. Not quite lifeless but certainly not evocative of gypsy life and liberty. And there were moments when coordination between stage and pit went painfully awry – particularly the smuggler’s chorus that opened Act 3. With the elimination of most of the dialogue/recitative it seemed he was conducting a “Carmen: the greatest hits” often with one well-known number following right after the last. It also meant that some of the action was a little confusing – what the hell was Zuniga doing back at the tavern? Oh yeah he told Carmen he was coming back, except that bit had been cut so who knew?
After the horror that was Tosca two weeks ago it was nice to see a more traditional approach without a director’s subtext imposed upon it. Director/designer Renzo Giacchieri used the stage wide bridge from last year’s Madama Butterfly as his main design feature and adapted it effectively for each of the four scenes. His direction – with one major and devastating exception – was inoffensive and any “innovations” did little harm to the drama. The exception? His – and perhaps mezzo Elina Garanča’s – conception of Carmen. This was the hip swaying, legs splaying, thigh hugging, Carmen as slut school! Wrong! Wronger! Wrongest! Carmen is not, I repeat, not a prostitute! You take that approach and the whole story becomes nothing more than a tart getting her come uppence from an angry john. And ladies and gentlemen that is not the opera that Bizet, Meilhac and Halévy wrote. Hell it isn’t even the novella that Mérimée penned.
And frankly Garanča had problems pulling it off. Physically she is a beautiful woman – unfortunately a black wig hid some of that beauty – and the voice has a slightly smoky seductive quality, though that wasn’t evident until the Seguedille. Many of her videos have a highly charged sexuality when she just stands and sings but when she moved – or perhaps because of the way she moved – sensuality was a quality that was missing. And the dark tone needed for the Card scene just isn’t there – the repeated “La morte” lacked the needed sense of immovable fate. Granted the sounds were never less than beautiful – not a given these days – and I can see why she is being regarded as one of the emerging stars of the operatic world. I would like to see her in one of her Rossini or Bellini roles because, without wanting to sound like commentors on some blogs, I just don’t think she is on the same level as the Carmens of my experience.
Originally Marcello Alvarez had been announced as the Don José but his name disappeared from the notices about three weeks ago and was replaced by that of Valter Borin, who appears to be specializing in the role in Italy’s outdoor venues this summer. His is one of those big blaring voices that seems to start at forte and gets louder from there. His Air de Fleur lacked the necessary lyricism but he did rise above the ordinary in some of the bigger moments. The same can be said for Carlo Colombara’s beefy Escamillo who gave a respectable version of the Toredor Song, no doubt inspired by the large part of the audience who thought they would encourage him by humming along.
Though the character is a bit of cipher – come now who really cares about the girl he left behind when you got a hot blooded gypsy on stage – Ermonela Jaho’s Micaela was the best performances of the evening. She sang with a lovely floating tone and brought real sense of the girl’s plight to her Act 3 aria. She’s a singer I would like to hear more of. With the exception of the very squally and strident toned Frasquita and Mercedes the smaller roles were adequately sang.
The generally reliable Teatro dell’Opera chorus marched, smoked, brawled, threw flowers, quaffed wine and generally behaved the way an opera chorus should while not making as beautiful a sound as they normally do. Both in the Tosca and in the Carmen they have been off form – perhaps it is the uncertainty of their future that is distracting them.
And things at the Opera are very uncertain at the moment – I won’t rehearse the Byzantine turn of events that have put the future in question but performances of the level presented at Caracalla this year do raise concerns about artistic standards. Sure the tourists will buy tickets because its Rome, its Italy, its a historic site and some because they enjoy opera but for the first time in three years I noticed empty blocks of seats at both performances.
Oh and our canoodling couple – well by the time Don José got around to doing Carmen in they had made up and were on their way to the happy ending denied Bizet’s gypsy.
03 agosto – San Nicolò Politi