How appropriate that the diamond manufacturers De Beers should have been associated with the opening night of the Royal Opera's 60th anniversary production of Bizet's Carmen. Expensive and well-buffed might be one way of describing it; cool and collected might be another.
Mid-19th century Seville (as realised by designer Tanya McCallin) is all blue skies, terracotta and parasols. A cast of thousands politely promenade, pretending to be hot but fooling no one; well-drilled street urchins worry well-drilled soldiers; even the livestock - the obligatory donkey and the odd chicken - looks well-groomed. And when the cigarette girls eventually spill, or rather slink, from their factory, smoke wafting romantically through the open gates, you're thinking: "This isn't a lunch break, this is a fashion shoot." Sweatshop chic - how this season's working girls are dressing down.
The point is that if you are looking for even a smidgen of social realism, you won't find it here. Francesca Zambello's well-choreographed stage pictures are strictly in the old "look, isn't it pretty?" travelogue mould. Bags of detail, but all of it - the earthiness, the ethnicity, the sex - well within operatic comfort zones. If ever a production strove to reaffirm that Bizet and his librettists knew nothing about Spain, then this is it. Even Antonio Pappano and his orchestra - for all their vitality, beauty and sheen - seemed shy of the brashness.
No one, least of all me, would deny Carmen its romantic spin, but at the heart of the drama lies blood, sweat and tears, and if you cannot at least suggest that its main protagonists are driven by irresistible passions then, frankly, you are lost. And lost was how Zambello's principals seemed as they gamely competed with the grandiose, every-scene-an-eyeful presentation. They seemed somehow diminished by it.
Carmen herself - Anna Caterina Antonacci - was well-schooled. Vocally, she worked the nasal French vowels and rasping chest notes to good effect; she toyed just enough with the vocal lines to make them sound tantalising. But rebellious, free-spirited, a gypsy? Not a bit of it. It took all of two seconds to distinguish her from the all-clapping, all-stamping dancers in Lillas Pastia's tavern. But in every other respect this Carmen did not stand out from the crowd. She was, if you like, a symptom of the production - polished, but never dangerous. Plus I missed the sultry mezzo colours in her voice. That's a risk you take when casting a soprano in the role.
An even bigger risk was the casting of the gifted German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Don José. But it was a gamble that paid off big-time. Yes, you could argue that this elegant singer lacks the vocal heft for the soul-baring show-downs of Acts III and IV, but in so doing you must also remember that Don José is a emotional weakling, a lovesick mummy's boy destroyed by his own misplaced infatuations. Kaufmann conveyed that absolutely, with phrase upon melting phrase pointing to the soft-centred romantic beneath the toy soldier's uniform. But there was a core of strength, too, and in his convincingly low-key reading of the final scene he was all the more dangerous for being so completely and utterly the little boy lost. What a talent this young singer is.
There was conspicuous talent, too, in the Frasquita of Elena Xanthoudakis and the Mercédès of Viktoria Vizin, and a tremulous vulnerability in the Micaëla of Norah Amsellem. The voice does nothing for me, personally, but you have to admire the technique that produces such a rush of confidence through to the top B of her big aria.
So what of the dashing toreador Escamillo, the man most likely to win the gypsy Carmen's heart? Well, if you are thinking dream casting, think no further than Ildebrando D'Arcangelo. And yet even he, a bass-baritone, seemed challenged by the low-lying thrust of his sing-along aria. But he did arrive on a horse. Need I say more?
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