The Arts Desk, 08 December 2009
Adam Sweeting
Bizét, Carmen, Milano, 7. Dezember 2009
Carmen, Live from La Scala broadcast 
 It was well worth a dash down a rain-deluged Shaftesbury Avenue to catch this live digital broadcast from Milan at the Odeon, Covent Garden. For a start it meant saving a plane fare and a ticket at 250 euros or (much) more, and it also meant eavesdropping in vivid close-up on what may have been a nugget of history in the making at the grand old opera house.

For his second gala opening since becoming La Scala's principal guest conductor, Daniel Barenboim couldn't go far wrong by picking Bizet's bomb-proof classic. By casting Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role, after considering her for the smaller part of one of Carmen's gypsy friends, Mercedes, he may have launched a major new career, judging by the riotous audience reception and the bombardment of flowers tumbling down on her head during the curtain calls. "She showed herself to be a great artist," declared Barenboim afterwards.

Yet during the first act, which fell slightly flat thanks to a lack of oomph from the cinema sound system, it was Barenboim himself who provided some of the drollest entertainment. The cameras followed him as he strolled nonchalantly into the orchestra pit, joking with some of the players and looking very much the man in form. Then we chortled as he writhed and wriggled and assumed an anguished expression as he tried to get comfortable on his chair. Once he'd found his equilibrium, his conducting itself proved to be a fascinating mini-universe of idiosyncrasies. Having launched the orchestra into action with a violent forearm smash, he would then sit motionless for a bar or two, or even adopt the pose of a man dozing on a park bench. He held his baton up vertically, and tapped it gently with the forefinger of his other hand. He flung out an arm and vibrated his outstretched hand to tell the brass section to keep the noise down.

But it worked, and the orchestra responded with a nuanced fluency that gathered strength as the action progressed. Of course, watching on a giant movie screen, there can always be a faint margin of doubt about whether you're responding to the performance directly, or merely to the way you're receiving it. Certainly the energy and intensity seemed to step up dramatically in Act 2, but it must have had something to do with the fact that they'd turned the volume up in the house to at least 11.

With the scale of the screen images (La Scala, pictured right) matched by the audio levels, Jonas Kaufmann's Don José began to reveal its considerable strengths. This was a nervous, insecure José, overwhelmed by the sun-ripened buxomness and ungovernable force of Rachvelishvili's Carmen. His performance of the "Flower Song" was a devastating evocation of a man impaled on an insoluble dilemma.

In the opposite corner was his love rival, the bullfighter Escamillo, played with thunderous conviction by Erwin Schrott. In the "Toreador Song", Schrott commanded the stage with his outrageous alpha-male swagger and a baritone voice that rang like steel on granite. In his fight scene with Jose, he tormented the lovesick tenor with athletic ease, then stalked from the stage with a contemptuous flicking-dust-off-my-shoulder gesture.

One benefit of this cinematic view of the performance was the opportunities it offered to get inside, and sometimes high above, some of the detail of Emma Dante's stage direction. Aspects of her Carmen designs have triggered controversy, not least José's almost-rape of Carmen before he kills her and ghastly photographs of bloody, dying bulls, but Dante has brought vigour and crude energy to the cigarette-girls bathing in the town square, and to the raucous scenes in the smugglers' lair. The cinema will never be the opera house, but this broadcast successfully piggybacked onto the raw energy bubbling from the La Scala stage.

 back top