The Times, January 5, 2010
Richard Morrison
Bizét, Carmen, Milano, 7. Dezember 2009
Carmen at La Scala, Milan
Milan’s opera season always starts oddly late in the year — in mid-December — and the opening production is inevitably a showy affair. This season’s curtain-raiser, Carmen, was more extraordinary than most. With the best seats priced at more than £2,000, and the stalls packed with Italy’s foremost glitterati dressed to dazzle, expectations were high — to put it mildly. But as if determined to pile even more pressure on itself, La Scala employed an avant-garde theatre director, Emma Dante, who had never previously directed an opera, and — in the title-role — a 25-year-old singer, Anita Rachvelishvili, who had never sung anything before on the professional stage.

A Georgian mezzo with a gloriously full sound that will clearly whisk her round the world’s great opera houses in quick succession, Rachvelishvili was only 23 and still studying with Mirella Freni at La Scala’s Academy when she auditioned for the minor role of Frasquita. But Daniel Barenboim was so struck by her voice that he gave her the main role, and two years of personal coaching to prepare her.

The result was vocally impressive but, as yet, dramatically limited. Rachvelishvili sings a passionate Gypsy girl but doesn’t yet embody one. Her stately Habanera was about as sexy as the Brahms Requiem. It was left to her Don José to supply the fire in the relationship, and Jonas Kaufmann certainly cranked up his dark, hefty tenor thrillingly in his big numbers.

Yet it was precisely in portraying this central relationship that Dante’s staging seemed least convincing. She transferred the action to her native Sicily and inserted dozens of bitter little digs at a hypocritical Roman Catholic Church that constantly turns a blind eye to assault and abuse within its own ranks. Processions of priests and acolytes seemed constantly to be observing, and endorsing, every violent twist in the tale.

Fair game, you may feel. But Dante’s central thesis was that Carmen is a story about men inflicting violence on women. She opened with soldiers beating up a pregnant girl, and ended with Don José raping Carmen before killing her. This black-and-white view of their relationship, as sadist and innocent victim, did scant justice to the complexity of either character. And the feminist agenda was farcically undermined by choreography that offered as gratuitous a display of female flesh as I’ve seen in an opera house for years.

No complaints about the conducting, though. Barenboim drew exquisitely silky, delicate playing from the Scala orchestra and rich, responsive singing from the chorus — as well as fervent performances from, in particular, Erwin Schrott (Escamillo) and Adriana Kucerova (Mercedes). Provocative and never dull, this production returns to La Scala later this year and is then expected to transfer to Barenboim’s “other” theatre — the Staatsoper in Berlin.

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