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Georges Bizet died at the tragically young age of 36 while Carmen was still in it's first run, and he never witnessed the huge international acclaim his opera received. Filled with jealousy and passion, the gripping and ultimately tragic narrative of Carmen initially shocked audiences, but with an abundance of memorable tunes, it remains unchallenged as one of the most popular operas ever written. Carmen received it's premiere at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1875, and this internationally acclaimed production, performed on period instruments, represents a triumphant return to it's home theatre. 'Carmen has never sounded more revolutionary, romantic or thrillingly vibrant' (The Times, London).
Ms. Antonacci comes across as a totally convincing Carmen, vocally and dramatically. Her Habanera is spicy, alluring and sung with utter confidence and swagger, while her Second Act Les tringles des sistres tintaient shows her displaying an exotic style quite perfect for this colorful number. Straight through the opera she is consistently excellent, conveying effectively every aspect of the conniving and manipulative side of seductress Carmen’s character. Andrew Richards is splendid as Don José, the soldier hopelessly enamored of Carmen and tortured by her rejections. His Second Act Flower Song (La Fleur Que Tu M’avais Jetée) is sung with tenderness and passion. His dramatic skills are impressive throughout: note how effectively he becomes a different Don José in the final act, degenerating to desperation and finally to a murderous level in answer to Carmen’s final rejection.
Anne-Catherine Gillet as Micaëla is also quite fine. She has an angelic soprano voice, which is especially beautiful and strong in the upper ranges. In the First Act Parle-moi de ma mere she sings with great passion and arresting innocence. Her Third Act Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante is also quite good even if at moments she veers toward stridency. Nicolas Cavallier as Escamillo is also impressive, and the rest of the cast is very convincing.
As suggested above, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his fine orchestra also deliver stellar work for their part. Gardiner’s tempos are brisk, and the orchestra’s playing is always spirited, precise and full of feeling. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard better phrasing and orchestral playing in any other recorded performance of Carmen. Try the Act II Overture and notice how subtly Gardiner shapes the music as it builds from its demure opening to a lively exotic dance and then transitions right into Carmen’s brilliantly sung Les tringles. Of course, the Prelude at the opera’s outset is brilliantly played too and all the accompaniments throughout the opera are consistently well done.
The costuming is historically accurate and quite realistic: clothes of the factory workers and smugglers appear worn and sometimes tattered, though Carmen’s attire is usually a cut or so above the others’. I wouldn’t necessarily associate the costuming with Spain but it is nevertheless quite fitting throughout the opera. Sets are rather sparse and the lighting is often faint, leaving dark scenery, which is generally quite effective here.
Stage Director Adrian Noble clearly understands drama and the theater. Here he does not tamper with the essentials of the opera’s story or time period as so many other stage directors have lately done with this and other operas. That said, he does add—with good historical foundation though—a few touches that mostly enhance this production. For example, using the aforementioned Smith’s Edition Peters Urtext, he inserts a scene where Moralès looks out toward the audience and observes an incident along with fellow soldiers to his left and right. He wittily describes its action: a young wife is secretly handed a message from her lover while strolling with her oblivious older husband. This scene is employed instead of a pantomime, which was used in some early performances of Carmen but thereafter abandoned. In any event, this subtle tidbit helps fill out the picture of life in Carmen’s Seville. In the end, Noble’s treatment of Carmen must be judged an imaginative and fresh take on this warhorse opera.
The camera work, picture clarity and sound reproduction on this Blu-ray disc are excellent. As for the competition on video, not surprisingly it is plentiful. There are two splendid Franco Zeffirelli renditions from the Arena di Verona: one on TDK, from 2003, featuring the brilliant Marina Domashenko as Carmen and led by Alain Lombard; the other is on BelAir Classiques, from 2014, with Ekaterina Semenchuk in the lead and Henrik Nànàsi conducting. Of these two I would favor the earlier one. There is an excellent version, but updated to current times, on Unitel Classica, from 2010, featuring a star-studded cast of Béatrice Uria-Monzon and Roberto Alagna in the leads, and Marina Poplavskaya as Micaëla and Erwin Schrott as Escamillo. But Calixto Bieito’s staging won’t be to everyone’s taste, with its use of Mercedes Benz cars, flat screen televisions, simulated sex scenes and other added features. On purely musical grounds it is excellent and probably the equal of the Gardiner/Naxos, but it falls short owing to its sometimes wayward and somewhat incoherent production. The Lombard/TDK features a fine production, but so does this Naxos effort, and in the end its strengths outweigh the others’. The Gardiner/Naxos would thus be my first choice in video format.
– MusicWeb International