Tuesday 17 December 2013

Carmen, Royal Opera, 16 December 2013

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Moralès – Ashley Riches
Micaëla – Verónica Cangemi
Don José – Roberto Alagna
Zuniga – Nicolas Courjal
Carmen – Anita Rachvelishvili
Frasquita – Simona Mihai
Mercédès – Rachel Kelly
Lillas Pastia – Caroline Lena Olsson
Escamillo – Vito Priante
Le Dancaïre – Adrian Clarke
Le Remendado – Stuart Patterson
Guide – Jean-Baptiste Fillon

Francesca Zambello (director)
Duncan Macfarland (revival director)
Tanya McCallin (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Arthur Pita, Sirena Tocco (choreography)
Mike Loades, Natalie Dakin (fight director)

Actors, Dancers
Royal Opera Chorus and extra chorus (chorus director: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Alas, a depressing evening, of which the worst culprit was for once perhaps not Francesca Zambello’s West End musical ‘approach’ to Bizet’s opéra comique. Zambello’s production does its job, I suppose, in as non-intellectual a way as you could imagine: something for those for whom Miss Saigon is a little too challenging. But, except for the inappropriate scale – which, to be fair, is a problem large houses will always struggle to overcome – it does not really get in the way. The donkey – ‘Polyanne the donkey, supplied by John McLaren and Linda Chilton of Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary – still walks on for no discernible reason, yet it had, or seemed to have, the intelligence and grace to look as bewildered by its appearance as we were. As for the absurd Madonna – this is no probing of Spanish religious practice, but, as with Zambello’s Don Giovanni, an appearance that remains at the level of mere religious tat – it continues to be wheeled on too, remaining stationary whilst a priest blesses Escamillo and Carmen. And why does the fourth act’s opening chorus continue to be omitted? (It surely ought to offer the director plenty more dubious opportunities for display.)

I shall not go on, for that, as I said, was not really the greatest problem. Daniel Oren, I am afraid to say, offered what must be a serious contender for the title of worst conducting I have endured in a major house. (I am tempted to delete the word ‘major’, so atrocious were the results.) The first act came off worst of all. After a blithe and bouncy opening – one could see him, blithely bouncing, too – the rest of the Prelude ground to a halt. Yet that was nothing compared to the disjunctures between pit and stage, the inability to maintain any tempo whatsoever – and certainly not on account of judicious rubato – and the apparent lack of rehearsal throughout. Indeed, it sounded as though Oren had never seen the score before, let alone rehearsed it. The orchestra occasionally sounded good on its own terms, but one could hardly blame it for times when it seemed less than wholly committed. I should be tempted to describe Oren’s contribution as hack work, were that not a gross libel to hacks across the world. If anything, his conducting was even worse than it had been in Robert le diable. I cannot imagine why the Royal Opera continues to engage him; it is not as if there is a shortage of conductors for a work such as Carmen.  Constantinos Carydis did a fine job last time around, in 2010, but it would be difficult to know where to start with a list of possibilities.

In that context, it is, I think, wise to be charitable to the singers as well as to the orchestra. That said, and all allowances made, it was anything but a vintage evening in that respect. Nicolas Courjal was the sole surviving cast member from 2010. What I wrote then applies with at least equal force now: he ‘made a more virile impression as the lieutenant, Zuniga, than either of the two principal men’. For Roberto Alagna, as Don José, was sometimes wildly out of tune and proved in general, especially before the interval, coarse in his delivery. At best, he sounded as if he were singing Puccini in French. Vito Priante was better as Escamillo, though there was nothing especially memorable to his assumption, which might well have fared better in a smaller theatre. (The horse, of course, does not help.) Anita Rachvelishvili has an attractive voice, but it was difficult to feel that it was right for the role. Not only was her French unidiomatic, but vocal strength was very much tied to the lower end of her range; I could not help but wonder whether she would have been happier singing Tatiana, or even Olga. It did not help, moreover, that she looked more like Escamillo’s mother than lover; the moment when she awkwardly sat upon Don José was unfortunate in every respect. Verónica Cangemi had her moments as Micaëla; indeed, her third-act aria was the only time at which I was remotely moved. Nevertheless, there were too many moments of vocal harshness. Two Jette Parker Young Artists  made excellent impressions in smaller roles, however: the Moralès of Ashley Riches and Rachel Kelly’s Mercédès both had one looking forward to hearing more from them. Next time, all being well, in a more involving production and with a conductor who at least approaches a level of basic competence…