Canoodling at Caracalla

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?

Director/Designer Renzo Giacchieri used the bridge from last year’s Madama Butterfly very effectively to set the four scenes of Carmen. With budget cuts of up to 30% economy is the watch word in Italian culture today.

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.

Elina Garanča leaving the stage to get conductor Karl Mark Chichon during the curtain calls at the end of Saturday night’s Carmen. She was not pleased about something and gave both the conductor and tenor glaring looks – wonder what was going on backstage?

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

Mercoledi Musicale

I mentioned that we were getting Elina Garanca here during the summer run of Carmen at the Baths of Caracalla. Here’s the Latvian diva herself doing the Seguidille from that opera.

The opera queens operaphiles may not necessarily agree but I find both renditions more than enjoyable. I can hardly wait to see Garanca at the Baths – that doesn’t sound right but you know what I mean!

06 maggio – San Giovanni ante Portam Latinam

Ma Carmen Adoré

Let me start off by saying that if anyone is looking for a Bocelli-bashing you should stop reading right now. Likewise if you’re expecting a gushing endorsement of his appearance last Friday night perhaps it would be best to look elsewhere. And just as an aside all flames will be extinguished the minute they are set!

Carmen programmeLast Friday evening the Teatro dell’Opera was almost full – something I haven’t seen since that incredible Roberto Bolle Gala last December. It wasn’t a regular subscription night except for those of us on what, for marketing purposes, is called Fantasia Opera so these were mostly off-the-street ticket sales. It is notable that only one of Mr. Bocelli’s scheduled evenings was subscription the other three were box office and agency sales only – Francesco Ernani, the Teatro director, seems to have recognized the drawing power of his name. And its a good guess that most of the audience were there to see Mr. Bocelli more than Carmen. Which is just as well, as this production did poor service to Bizet’s masterpiece and was almost as vulgar as the giant red lips they used for the poster.

Since arriving here in Italy I’ve seen two productions staged by director-designer Pier’Alli – the first was Oberto in Parma last October – and I can only hope I will never see another. However I’m not counting on it as he seems to be everywhere. The staging began promisingly enough with a holograph bullring projected onto a scrim at midstage but P’A doesn’t like an unpeopled space. So we were treated to members of the less than stellar Teatro ballet all tarted up in Spanish-drag doing their morning calisthenics in time to the overture. And they just never stopped – every number was accompanied by cape swirling, mantilla twirling, cigarette puffing, pose striking dancers doing their best to distract the audience from the bothersome singing that was going on. And though that midstage scrim allowed for some picturesque effects the truth is that a cloth between singers and audience dampens the sound and in the case of most of the voices left one wishing for that bugaboo of all opera lovers – amplification!

Power was not the problem with Ildiko Lomlosi’s Carmen. Mme Lomlosi is a large raw boned Hungarian mezzo with a large raw voice to match. She and P’A’s concept favoured the Carmen as slut school. Her gypsy seductress was brash, brazen and frankly gave the impression that she could arm-wrestle any man in the audience and win. Poor Don Jose didn’t stand a chance. And if her Carmen lacked charm so did Cinzia Rizzone’s small-voiced Michaela. Simone Alberghini cut a good figure as Escamillo and managed a nicely-judged Toreador Song despite having to dodge bouncing banderilla bearing ballet boys. The smaller roles ranged from the unhearable to the adequate. And despite being stuck behind that bloody scrim – are you getting the idea I don’t like scrims – our fine Teatro chorus turned in some stirring sounds. Its bad when the chorus turns in the best performance in Carmen!

Andrea Bocelli as Don JoseHowever the big question was – how would Bocelli fare in all this? The staging worked around any difficulty he might have had reasonably well. Dramatically he was no less wooden and unresponsive than a few José’s I’ve experienced – my first, Raoul Jobin springs to mind. The fights were brief but effective and the death scene worked reasonably well. The opéra-comique version was used and he delivered his dialogue convincingly. His “La fleur que tu m´avais jetée” was pleasant if thin sounding but by no means unacceptable. But the problem still remains that he is not an opera but a concert singer and there is a big difference between singing in front of an orchestra and singing surrounded by other singers, a full chorus and the depth of an Italian Opera House orchestra pit separating you from your audience. By the third act his voice was sounding tired. Fortunately at that point most of José’s big sings are over but that third act ensemble is a killer and he just wasn’t able to get there. His next appearance here is scheduled for October, as the Italian Tenor in Der Rosenkavalier. It a brief cameo in the first act – one and a bit stanzas of a pseudo-Italian aria. Unfortunately it smacks of stunt casting but one can hardly expect his fans to flood in for the three hours of Strauss’s musical Sacher Torte if all they are going to get is two minutes of their Divo as whipped cream topping.

I mentioned in an earlier post that at times Alain Lombard did tend to let his orchestra swamp the singers – I should say that this did not apply to Bocelli. Lombard was careful to ensure that during his solo passages the orchestra was held in check. In other places his handling of the score suggested an affection and knowledge that would have worked wonders with a stronger cast.

For a taste of P’A’s busy staging and the final scene the Teatro dell’Opera’s video clip can be found here.

27 giugno – San Cirillo

Mercoledi Musicale

One of the great nights – and in the past 50 years there haven’t really been all that many – I’ve spent at the opera was May 14, 1980. I shared this memory in a posting back in February of 2007:

Standing in line for five hours at the Opera Comique waiting for a cancellation for the Berganza-Domingo Carmen. Enduring the abuse of the lumpy spun-sugar blond vendeuse at the box office. “Vous-etes fou d’attender” she heckled repeatedly, then magically produced a front row 1st loge seat 2 minutes to curtain time. The abuse was worth it – one of my great evenings at the opera.

The performance was being broadcast that night by Radio France and when I finally got my hands on a copy of the DVD memory had not deceived me or romanticized the event.

Teresa Berganza simply was Carmen – sly, seductive, playful and ultimately tragic. Not for her the hip wagging slattern that so often passes for Bizet’s gypsy. And she did it all while singing like an angel.

And though Domingo may have sung “La fleur que tu m´avais jetee” with more subtlety on other occasions that night it was the dramatic core of the opera. The tragedy that followed found its impetus in that aria.

It’s the standard by which I’ve – fairly or not – judged every other performance of Carmen since.

25 giugno – San Guiglielmo

Searing Question – Answered!

I was surprised at a few of the comments left in response to my little poll as well as astounded by 2 of the several e-mails I received. Being a devoted fan is one thing, being abusive to anyone who isn’t is another.

Here’s the results of my totally unscientific poll:

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And I’m glad to say the majority were right. There was no miking of any sort involved. Would it have benefited from it – to be honest more than a few of the singers could have used some increase of volume. However that was chiefly because of Director-Designer Pier’Alli’s fondness for sound-deadening scrims and a tendency of conductor Alain Lombard to allow the orchestra to swamp the singers.

I will be putting up a posting of Bizet’s Carmen as presented at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma last Friday night in the next day or so, you all know how long it takes me to write that sort of thing – thank god I’m not working to deadlines anymore. And I emphasis I’ll be talking about Bizet’s Carmen!

23 giugno – San Giuseppe Cafasso

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