Opera UK, February 2010
Bizét, Carmen, Milano, 7. Dezember 2009
The announcement that the new Carmen (December 7) opening LA SCALA’s 2009-10 season was to be directed by Emma Dante was greeted with widespread scepticism. Few in the opera world had heard of her, a 40-something Sicilian who thus far had staged only her own plays, violent affairs centered on the crippling effects of family, and set in the devastated human landscape of her native island. As reports of her ideas for Bizet’s opera appeared in the press over the weeks preceding the opening night, scepticism grew further.

In the end, though, this turned out to be a rather traditional Carmen. Dante sets the action in a square surrounded by brick walls (a cliché of the stage designer Richard Peduzzi): we could be anywhere in the western hemisphere. The costumes, designed by Dante herself, run the gamut from the utterly generic to a classic torero outfit for Escamillo. All the characters except José tend to be followed by what could be seen as projections of their thoughts or desires: Micaëla, for example, always appears with a cross-carrying priest and two altar boys, ready to celebrate her wedding with José; during their first-act duet her black dress turns into a wedding gown, while in Act 3 this same gown becomes the sheet of a huge bed, Micaëla having metamorphosed into Jose’s dying mother. This sounds more avant-garde than it actually comes across, and there is much else which would not look out of place in, say, Zambello’s safe Covent Garden production. But Dante has a firmer grasp of theatrical space than Zambello: all the choral scenes are beautifully choreographed, and the viewer’s attention is drawn, gently but firmly, to where it should be. Despite some confusing details, the final impression is that of a fully integrated, carefully thought-through piece of theatre, and a stimulating take on an opera perhaps too familiar to many of us.

Daniel Barenboim’s choice of tempos tended to favour slow over fast, especially in the more lyrical numbers (except Micaëla’s aria, dispatched comparatively speedily, perhaps in order to help a short-breathed and tired-sounding Adriana Damato). All the more remarkable, therefore, was his ability to sustain great tension in the pit and on stage, above all when José and Carmen were involved: the final duet, played and sung as an inexorable march towards death, made a particularly strong impact. This was surely due in significant part to the excellent contributions of Jonas Kaufmann and Anita Rachvelishvili. His José is a weak and desperate soul whose anger grows inexorably over the course of the drama; so does his voice, which finds spine-tingling subtleties in the Flower Song but then rings out powerfully in the duel with Escamillo and the finale. Rachvelishvili, a Georgian singer in her mid-20s who is a recent graduate of La Scala’s young singers’ programme, possesses a true mezzo voice, rich, flexible and evenly produced. Her command of the stage is stunning for somebody so young, and her musicianship sure-footed if not yet particularly subtle: altogether a most promising role and house debut. Erwin Schrott played Escamillo as a consummate man of the theatre, who knows full well what the public want and gives it to them with a mixture of seductiveness and disdain: in the context of this take on the character, the occasional lack of vocal power contributed to the sense of superior detachment. The best of the others were the Frasquita of Michèle Losier and the Mercédes of Adriana Kucerová.

At the end, there was enthusiasm for Rachvelishvili, Kaufmann and Barenboim, different degrees of appreciation for the others, and a prolonged battle between boos and bravas at the production team’s appearance. I guess it will take many of La Scala’s regulars a while to recover from the mind-numbing effect of the diet of theatrical inertia to which they were subjected during the Muti regime.

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