Carmen returns to the OpÈra Comique

After all, any conductor who doesn’t follow the practice would seem to be
tagged as “historically ignorant.”

At its start some decades ago, the “HIP” movement focused on baroque and
early classical era music. It has since branched out, and that branch is
impressively extended with the recent DVD of Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting
his Orchestre RÈvolutionnaire et Romantique at the OpÈra Comique in an
historically informed performance of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Besides
employing instruments of the era, this production aims for authenticity from
the ground up — or “the stage” up. For Carmen debuted at the
OpÈra Comique, infamously receiving a less than ideal reception that many
conjecture added to the stress which culminated in the composer’s early death
from heart disease. Stage director Adrian Noble strives to freshen the action
while keeping to a libretto-bound conception of the story and characters. This
is still, therefore, a Carmen who sits with legs splayed, and who sashays with
one hand on a hip. That said, Noble does have his Don JosÈ plant a kiss on
Micaela in act one that goes beyond the usual pallid interaction.

Set and costume designer Mark Thompson, however, seems of two minds. The
costumes are very traditional, though nicely done — almost everything is in a
spectrum of light beige through dark brown, and the clothes look truly worn. In
so many a Carmen, everyone looks as if the local dry cleaner is
working overtime. Thompson’s uniset, however, surely looks nothing like
whatever the OpÈra Comique used in 1875. Act three, for example, gives only
the barest indication of a mountain pass. Instead, we have a sort of elevated
walkway at the rear which slopes to stage level, and a circular platform just
off mid-stage. Apparently the cigarette factory is subterranean, as the girls
take their break by clambering out of the platform. For act 4, Noble and
Thompson clear the stage for the intense action of the last scene.

There are moments in the recorded performance where one can almost imagine,
however, that one is watching — if not the authentic first performance —
something rawer and more authentic than many another recorded Carmen.
Sir John and the artistic team use an edited version of the score (by one
Richard Lanhman-Smith) that has spoken dialogue, as Bizet originally intended.
And under Noble’s direction, a committed cast delivers strong performances
— honest and stripped-down to essentials. Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Carmen
has already been recorded in an acclaimed Covent Garden performance opposite
Jonas Kaufmann. Her comfort in the role allows her to perform even the most
stereotypical gestures and movements with relaxed conviction. Oddly, the only
times that her singing reflects any discomfort with the role is at the higher
range — which one might think unusual for a singer with a career as a
soprano. Perhaps in adjusting her voice for the reliance on the middle range,
Antonacci loses a bit of security at the top. It’s a very minor compromise in
an otherwise strong performance.

Her Don JosÈ does a fine job right up until his big second act aria and
continues to be fine thereafter. But Andrew Richards is not able to deliver the
“Flower Song” with the security and confidence the moment requires. It’s
all the more unfortunate as his Don JosÈ is so believable — a man of modest
attraction, overwhelmed by the chance to share the passion of Carmen, and then
devastated when it is withdrawn. The supporting cast makes more routine
impressions, with Anne-Catherine Gillet giving us a Micaela even mousier than
usual, and Nicolas Cavallier too smug for his own good as Escamillo.

As for Gardiner and his orchestra, they often play fast, as one might
expect, and there are patches of roughness than either attest to the
authenticity of the performance or suggest a deaf ear to musical sophistication
— depending on one’s attitude towards HIP. Gardiner’s most regrettable
choice is the Nehru jacket. Un-HIP.

The packaging is remarkably handsome but not without compromises. Your
reviewer prefers removable booklets to one bound to the spine. The two discs
are visually nearly identical, with text almost impossible to read. Figuring
out how to dislodge the discs from the casing also took more of your
reviewer’s ingenuity than he would have liked. The bonus feature is a rather
routine 20 minute set of interviews, but as the booklet has nothing but credits
and synopsis, anyone wanting a little more insight into the performance will
have to view it.

Not a “hip” Carmen, then, but this HIP Carmen does have
historical appeal and a strong performance of the title role.

Chris Mullins

image_description=FRA Musica FRA 004
product_title=Georges Bizet: Carmen
product_by=Carmen: Anna Caterina Antonacci; Don JosÈ: Andrew Richards; Escamillo: Nicolas Cavallier. Orchestre RÈvolutionnaire et Romantique. The Monteverdi Choir. Director: Adrian Noble. Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner. OpÈra Comique, June 2009.
product_id=FRA Musica FRA 004 [2DVDs]