Opera News, February 2009
Antonacci, Amsellem; Kaufmann, D'Arcangelo; Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Pappano. Production: Zambello. Decca 074 3312, 152 mins., subtitled
This Covent Garden Carmen, with its match-up of the exciting Italian mezzo Anna Caterina Antonacci and German wonderboy tenor Jonas Kaufmann, was hotly anticipated in 2006, when this DVD was filmed. Decca's marketing people, understandably, have given the cover of the DVD a movie-poster-style shot of a ruggedly handsome Kaufmann holding the limp, mortally wounded (but still glamorous) Antonacci in a gorgeous yellow-and-black gown. Yes, death in opera can be a beautiful thing.

As Don José, Kaufmann easily meets expectations, both vocally and dramatically. His transformation from a rule-abiding soldier — with close, controlled facial expression and body movements — into a deserter obsessed with having Carmen at any cost is magnificent, and he has the good fortune to have the right sort of face to project desperation straight into camera close-ups. After Carmen has snared him, you can watch his helpless agony as Kaufmann's José comprehends that he has just thrown away everything for her: his regiment sounds the retreat, and he grasps that he's losing his chance to return with them, but he is literally trapped by her legs, which she has wrapped around his neck, cobralike. He is riveting in the lead-up to the final scene of the opera, with a torn shirt, unshaven and looking like he hasn't slept in days, roughly grabbing Carmen's face in his hands to prevent her from leaving. His baritone-ish tenor gives him extra menace and power, but he still manages to soar beautifully in his big moments; passages in "non, Carmen, je ne partirai pas" and "laisse-moi te sauver" are so meltingly beautiful they should have stopped Carmen from defecting to Escamillo. It is the best Don José I have seen in a long time.

Antonacci's Carmen is a puzzlement. At her live best (such as her splendid Cassandre in Troyens in Paris in 2003, a role she repeated at Tanglewood last summer), Antonacci throws herself into roles with an uncompromising intensity. While she reportedly was mesmerizing in this role live, the translation to screen is bumpy. As filmed, this is a Carmen who is mostly hard-edged hauteur — vocally and dramatically — even when she is in seduction mode, making arias such as "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" tough to pull off. Even if she is provocatively washing her legs here, the vocal equivalent isn't happening. (Ideally, in that aria, the calculation should be hidden, and only the Gallic, smoky charm should be apparent, but here it's the other way around.) The other difficulty is Antonacci's unorthodox vocalism, which is much more audible in a recorded format; she particularly struggles in "Les tringles des sistres tintaient," where she only approximates many of the notes in faster passages. She does better in the séguidille, but even that suffers from the same mix of haughty and slutty that doesn't quite add up to the free spirit that makes Carmen Carmen.

Among the supporting cast, Ildebrando d'Arcangelo's Escamillo is a little bleaty at first in "Je suis Escamillo," especially down in his low range, but he improves as the opera progresses and is unusually appealing in "Si tu m'aimes" with Antonacci. Norah Amsellem's wide-eyed Micaela — a bit reminiscent of Mary Pickford — looks sweet but doesn't always sound it. There's a spot at the end of Act III where the vibrato on her high B-flat is painfully wide. Best in the smaller roles are Elena Xanthoudakis, who offers a beguiling Frasquita, and Jacques Imbrailo's fresh-voiced Moralès.

Under Antonio Pappano the orchestra sounds excellent, with an emphasis on power as opposed to charm. Francesca Zambello's production, designed by Tanya McCallin, uses one basic movable set, with simple, attractive red-orange stucco walls, a tree here, a table there, though there are a few unfortunate moments, such as having poor Escamillo sing "Votre toast" on a horse — never a good idea. It's not a brilliant staging, but it mostly stays out of the way and lets you focus on the music and drama.

All in all, this was one of those outings where it was tempting to rename the opera Don José.

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