New York Times, December 9, 2009
Bizét, Carmen, Milano, 7. Dezember 2009
Cheers and Catcalls for ‘Carmen’ 
MILAN — La Scala started its season Monday night with a new production of Bizet’s “Carmen,” an unknown mezzo-soprano singing the title role, a novice opera director and the usual brouhahas offstage.

Among those, autoworkers, knowing that Fiat’s deputy chairman was going to be in attendance, organized a small protest across the square from the theater, sending smoky fireworks into the evening drizzle.

The autoworkers were joined behind the barricades by protesters from some regional theaters, angry about government cutbacks by Italy’s culture minister, Sandro Bondi. Mr. Bondi, newspapers here declared the next day, had been too scared to show up. The Scala orchestra held a brief moment of silence before the opera began, in sympathy with their colleagues.

The atmosphere in general was kind of somber for the occasion, a barometer of straitened times perhaps. This meant fewer women sporting furs and brightly colored, elaborately cantilevered, spun-sugar gowns, although there were still plenty of aged pooh-bahs in their finery, who decamped before television cameras from an endless stream of limousines, this time including the president of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, and the author Dan Brown, on whom the Italian media strangely doted, as if he held some great clue to the proceedings.

But there was no special mystery to it. If Old World Europe still has its great spectacle, it is this annual senior prom, at the end of which the so-called loggionisti, the diehard fans in the rafters who are opera’s original bloggers, rain ritual terror or roses down on the performers.

They split the difference Monday, cheering the singers, who deserved it, but eviscerating the director, Emma Dante, who didn’t, quite. For whatever reason, Franco Zeffirelli, of all people joined in, unburdening himself to Italian reporters of the view that she was “an irresponsible woman” who “knows nothing” about the 19th century and whose “Carmen” was a crime.

In a country where the prime minister may soon be facing actual criminal charges, that remark, like many of Mr. Zeffirelli’s own extravagant opera productions, was over the top, although Ms. Dante did lay it on too thick with the Roman Catholic symbolism. Religious processions and mourners roamed the stage as if having wandered in from the cathedral a block away, and a priest wearing a big, black Father Guido Sarducci hat held Mass and followed around the chaste Micaëla like a lawyer with his client. This was all interjected to drive home some already obvious point about the opera’s pitting conformity versus liberty.

But by the loopy standards of Europe, where directors seem to feel almost obliged to rewrite classic operas from scratch, Ms. Dante wasn’t particularly far out. She defended herself afterward, saying “maybe there are ideas that have not been understood, because they are not to be found in the libretto, but I have not forced things,” which was half true. Her direction didn’t undermine or contradict the score, and it often helped propel the music forward. Meanwhile the staging gave the drama an unusual, concentrated focus, a fresh gravity, in which women were notably strong figures.

Who knows? Maybe some of the complainers felt uneasy about seeing men so clearly cast as the weaker sex. Or perhaps this is just an opera that can’t ever quite live up to anyone’s expectations. It inhabits our imagination too completely by now. Even as we await the Habanera and Seguidilla, we’re wondering whether our dreams will surpass what we’re about to experience. We’re girding for disappointment. That’s Bizet’s genius, ultimately, and also an analogue to the plot itself, which is about thwarted love.

Aside from Ms. Dante, La Scala’s other big gamble was on the 25-year-old Georgian-born mezzo, Anita Rachvelishvili, in the title role. She triumphed. A product of the company’s own vocal academy, she turns out to have a big, remarkably even voice, high to low. It’s velvety and agile. She sounded totally at home as opera’s female Don Giovanni, cocky and reckless, taking her independence all the way to the grave. This wasn’t an introspective or animal Carmen exactly, but a seductive one with a natural, easy lyricism — and great hair too. Whenever Ms. Rachvelishvili tossed her long dark locks, which she did often, smitten Spanish soldiers fell onstage like dominoes.

Jonas Kaufmann was her helpless Don José. A singer of exquisite taste and complete control, he lived up to his billing. His mounting despair gave the opera its central dramatic arc. His delicacy in the “Flower Song” stuck in the throat. He was superb, heartbreaking.

Erwin Schrott, the young Uruguayan star, shone too. He showed off his dusky bass as the strutting Escamillo, a cocky counterpoint to Mr. Kaufmann’s tortured suitor. Daniel Barenboim conducted and drew glorious sounds from the Scala orchestra and later defended Ms. Dante as a groundbreaker. Clearly they had developed a theatrical rapport that came through in the music.

As for the rest, Adriana Damato made the most of her time onstage as Micaëla, and so did Michèle Losier as Fraquita and Adriana Kucerova as Mercédès.

But the evening belonged to Ms. Rachvelishvili, whom the loggionisti showered with applause and flowers, one of which bonked her in the face. Briefly flustered, she paused, brushed herself off, picked up the flower, then laughed, soaking in the adulation.

Just what a good Carmen does.

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