Classics Today
Robert Levine
Anna Caterina Antonacci (mezzo-soprano); Jonas Kaufmann (tenor); Norah Ansellem (soprano); Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (bass); others
Orchestra & Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Antonio Pappano
Decca- 0743312(DVD)
Reference Recording - This one
Artistic Quality/Sound Quality   10/10
This terrifically-cast and conducted Carmen goes to the top of the list, which is saying a great deal given the quality of the competition: Julia Migenes and Placido Domingo in the filmed version is still crucial; Carreras and Baltsa are fiery at the Met; Karajan has plenty to say with Bumbry and Vickers. The look here, by Tanya McCallin, is essentially realistic and uncomplicated, with no attempts at grandeur; the basic orange walls that can be raised, lowered, and moved are a bit low-rent, but are never less than effective. And the feel is decidedly Spanish.

Francesca Zambello gets the opera's flavor right, although so many animals, acrobats, and extras can make you fear that she's going in a Zeffirellian direction. Her treatment of the two main characters is not busy: Carmen is alluring but never over-the-top; José is a kid gone wrong, as surprised by his own passions as we are. She mostly keeps out of the drama's way, adding nothing rash or new, which is just fine.

The singing and conducting are knockouts. The doomed couple is great-looking, intense, young, and believable, and they create a great deal of heat just by gazing at one another. Anna Caterina Antonacci, a soprano Carmen (she's a staggering Ermione in Rossini's opera), has no trouble at all with the role's low tessitura or dark hue--she adapts her voice to the character ideally. She's no teenager but she's a woman in full bloom, so assured of her sensuality and sexuality that she rarely needs to "turn it on". Her Card Scene, without resorting to much chest voice, is dangerously dark and tragic.

Partnering her with great enthusiasm is the heartthrob tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Tall and handsome, he is comfortable on stage and utterly musical: he phrases naturally, obeys dynamic markings, and has all of the notes easily within his grasp. His "Flower Song" is all of a piece, beautifully formed and filled with feeling, and his final confrontation with Carmen is the picture of building rage. He is nicely tender with the mush-mouthed Micaela of Norah Ansellem--she sings prettily and, miraculously, creates a real character. But what poor diction--especially considering that she's the cast's only native French speaker! Ildebrando d'Arcangelo is well suited in every way for Escamillo: both ends of his voice are strong enough and he knows how to swagger. Carmen's fellow smugglers are a good bunch and their performances in the second-act quintet are spotless.

Antonio Pappano gives us another wonderful reading--is there anything he conducts poorly? His rhythmic sense is without equal, his pacing allows the action to unfold in seemingly real time and without eccentricities. The brash introduction sets the scene, and so do the tragic darker moments; the languid opening choruses tell us where we are and what the temperature is. Bizet's expert scoring is underlined but never artificially highlighted. The drama goes just as it should, and even the overly familiar moments are a joy to hear. Sound, picture, and presentation (subtitles in all major European languages--except Italian and Chinese) are first-rate, and Jonathan Haswell's direction for the small screen highlights the right moments. This is the first choice for Carmen on DVD.

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