Carmen, Royal Opera

Visually, a vibrant palette and slick choreography are the order of the day.
The warm hues of designer Tanya McCallin’s looming sets complement the
concentrated ochres and rusts of the Sevillians’ attire; in the bright sunlit
square (lighting design, Paule Constable), an orange tree and a water conduit
add a dash of ‘realism’. Wealthy passers-by stroll nonchalantly; children
skip and prance, their comings and goings overseen by the watchful military
guard. The choral numbers are meticulously manoeuvred; there is scarcely an
urchin’s footstep or whirling parasol that is out of place. It is all very
pretty and eye-pleasing, but the overall effect is rather soulless; the
participants seem to perform for us, rather than engage with each other.

The same is true of the flamenco dancing in Act 2: the fancy footwork and
showmanship (choreographer, Arthur Pita, revived by Sirena Tocco) remind one of
a Christmas Nutcracker, designed to please the eyes and ears, without
overly troubling the heart and mind.

Given the foregrounding of these highly managed ensemble routines, the
omission of the Act 4 chorus at opening of last act is both surprising and a
disappointment. And, there are some redundant ‘extras’: if the donkey in
Act 1 looked perplexed as to its purpose, the decision to introduce Escamillo
on horseback is even more unfathomable. McCallin’s high walls have swung
inwards to create the cramped and darkened locale of Lillas Pastia’s inn;
there is hardly room to swing the proverbial cat, let alone ride a horse.

Fortunately, Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, in the title role,
offered much recompense. Passionate and committed, Rachvelishvili’s voice is
huge, but also mellow and luxurious — although it is stronger at the bottom
than the top. She used the sultry, exotic colours of her lower register to
dominate the stage. Physically too she emphasised Carmen’s earthy sexuality,
acting with untamed abandon, dismissive of moral boundaries, ruthlessly
targetting her prey. I’m not sure that we needed to see quite so much leg, or
quite so often. Rachvelishvili seemed to spend much of the opera with her skirt
hitched up to her hips, legs astride the hapless males who strayed into her
clutches; indeed, even when she promised to perform a special dance for Don
JosÈ, in his honour, this Carmen promptly lay down and bared her flesh. The
unalloyed sluttishness was rather overdone and diminished rather than increased
her allure.

Carmen rather overwhelmed her JosÈ, Robert Alagna, in the first two acts;
this gypsy is no ‘victim’ of patriarchal and racial oppression, simply a
‘bad girl’ who destroys her man. Alagna sang with his customary projection
— indeed, a little less ‘con belto’ would have been nice at times — but
the intonation was disappointingly inconsistent — most lamentably at the
pianissimo close of his Act 2 Flower Aria, where Alagna’s tender
cadence was marred by flat pitch. The acting was rather perfunctory to begin
with but in Act 4 Alagna did begin to convey Don JosÈ’s torment, credibly
portraying the complexity of the pitiable soldier’s divided affections and

There was little rapport between VerÛnica Cangemi’s MicaÎla and JosÈ:
in the opening act, the reunited childhood friends sang side-by-side, clutching
hands and facing the audience — again, singing to us, rather than each other.
JosÈ’s perfunctory kiss — blink and you’ll miss it — suggested he mind
was occupied with nostalgic thoughts of his much-missed mother rather than with
amorous inclinations. The Argentinian Cangemi struggled technically — the top
was insecure and there was some vocal roughness, but ‘Je dis que rien ne
m’Èpouvante’ communicated sincere feeling.

Italian bass-baritone Vito Priante sang well enough, but didn’t make much
impact dramatically as Escamillo. A few poses ‡ la toreador astride
the table-top do not alone fashion a hero of the bull-ring.

In the secondary roles, baritone Ashley Riches (MoralËs) and French bass
Nicolas Courjal (Zuniga) made a stronger impression; the latter evinced the
masculine power and authoritative presence that both Alagna and Priante at
times lacked. Irish mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly (like Riches, a Jette Parker
Young Artist) was strong as MercÈdËs, and she was neatly complemented by
Simona Mihai’s bawdy Frasquita.

The ROH Orchestra sounded ragged at times; Daniel Oren’s conducting was
somewhat unpredictable — the overture began with breakneck swiftness, before
trailing off dispiritingly; the Habanera was sleepily sluggish. In particular,
the dancers in the second act seemed disconcerted by the irregular tempo, but
throughout stage-to-pit co-ordination was weak. There was some fine individual
instrumental playing but the parts didn’t add up to an accomplished whole.

There are several changes of cast to come in this production run, which
continues until 9th January, including two more acclaimed Carmens:
Anna Caterina Antonacci and Christine Rice. They will have a challenge to match
the uninhibited, almost reckless, abandon of Rachvelishvili’s blazing

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Carmen, Anita Rachvelishvili; Don JosÈ, Roberto Alagna; Escamillo,
Vito Priante; MicaÎla, VerÛnica Cangemi; Frasquita, Simona Mihai; MercÈdËs,
Rachel Kelly; Le DancaÔre,Adrian Clarke; Le Remendado, Stuart Patterson;
Zuniga, Nicolas Courjal; MoralËs, Ashley Riches; Director, Francesca Zambello;
Revival director, Duncan Macfarland; Conductor, Daniel Oren; Designs, Tanya
McCallin; Lighting design, Paule Constable; Choreography, Arthur Pita; Revival
choreographer, Sirena Tocco; Fight director, Mike Loades; Revival fight
director, Natalie Dakin; Royal Opera Chorus; Orchestra of the Royal Opera
House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Monday 16th December 2013.