skyARTS, December 2008
Rob Ainsley
BIZET: Carmen
Anna Caterina Antonacci (Carmen)
Jonas Kaufman (Don Jose)
Ildebrando d'Arcangelo (Escamillo)
Norah Amsellem (Micaela)

Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus
Antonio Pappano (conductor)
Decca 074 331 2
It's hard to go wrong with an opera so full of colour and character, where you recognise just about every tune. And the plot is as straightforward as it gets: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy stabs girl. You can't fail - though certain recent productions not too far away have somehow managed to.

But no worries here. This production, recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in December 2006, is not only finely sung but also a sumptuous visual experience, ideal for DVD.

The staging is conventional: Seville in the mid-1800s. The costumes and sets are beautiful, like a gypsy-chic cinema ad for a carbonated global drink, lo-cal rather than local. That may be a problem if you like a touch of Lorca in your Carmen sets, a bit of the grit and dust and blood and passion that the story is actually about. Carmen isn't a nice girl after all. These days she'd be a self-harming pop diva, a serial WAG, or a reality TV celeb paying with her soul for her 15 minutes of fame. The ROH stage makes it all a colour-supplement cover shoot.

That said, the extravagance is mighty impressive. There's a spectacle and sweep to everything, and the crowd scenes burst with life and colour. There are real fires, real donkeys, no doubt real orange trees, even a real horse: Escamillo, the bullfighter who would nowadays be a rock star or a Beckhamesque footy player, enters on one, perhaps just a touch uncomfortably. Never work with animals or children, they say. Well, Carmen has both, but it all passes off without incident here.

There are many subtle directorial touches. As Carmen climbs the social ladder, like a top-hatted Katie Price popping up with the nobs in a dressage, her clothes become grander and grander; Don Jose, on the other hand, gets raggier and rougher, as his obsession with a woman who's long since left him for someone with money and fame drags him ever further down. Ah, mate, we've all been there.

Anna Caterina Antonacci's modelesque, footballer's-wife Carmen is finely sung. Her Habañera and other solos don't disappoint, though perhaps she lacks that dangerous quality (lovely moisturised skin, lovely waxed legs... nice, but not quite Carmen). Splendid support comes from Frasquita (Elena Xanthoudakis), Mercédès (Viktoria Vizin), and Morales (the increasingly impressive young Jacques Imbrailo). The two character-smugglers, Dancaïre and Remendado, are very entertaining, and the quintet is zippy. Norah Amsellem's Micaela comes across as a little wild-eyed and shrill here, rather than the sweet country girl.

Ildebrando d'Arcangelo's strongly sung Escamillo has a sports-champion's brooding arrogance, and perhaps could do with a tad more stampy-footed flamenco haughtiness - though he can't strut his stuff until the second half of the Toreador's song, having to spend the first half on horseback. You feel for him. Singing and acting and watching the conductor is tough enough as it is, without expecting someone to drive a horse at the same time.

And the star of the show is Jonas Kaufman's intense, riveting Don José, excellently sung and acted. He sings with great richness and power, but also with increasing vulnerability (in the dramatic, rather than technical, sense) as his world collapses in dark despair around him. Listen to the fabulously delicate ascent at the end of the flower duet, or his final emotional descent.

The orchestral sound is vivid, gorgeous, full of pomp but often appropriately taut. Overall this DVD is a fine visual spectacle, with an outstanding Don Jose. Well worth a look.

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