bizet carmen opus arte

Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2003 and the recording is still available.

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)
, Opera in Four Acts (1873-75)
Libretto by Meilhac and Halévy, after Mérimée
Carmen (mezzo) – Anne Sofie von Otter
Don José (tenor) – Marcus Haddock
Escamillo (baritone) – Laurent Naouri
Micaëla (soprano) – Lisa Milne
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Philippe Jordan
Directed for the stage by David McVicar
rec. live, 17 August 2002, Glyndebourne Opera House, UK
Opus Arte OA0867D DVD [2 discs: 220]

Carmen can justifiably lay claim to be the world’s most popular opera. As director David McVicar points out in one of the revealing documentary extras on this excellent BBC release, it ‘is probably the first musical, with hit tune after hit tune’. He’s right, but as his own thought-provoking production makes amply clear, it is so much more than that, having deep psychological layers that he teases out very effectively. He has (rightly in my opinion) opted for a colourful, naturalistic production, with costumes and sets all conveying the correct period and general feel; no stylised or ‘concept’ nonsense to distract the viewer. This leaves him clear to get the cast to really act and get under the skin of the complex characters that inhabit the work. This makes for a riveting dramatic experience, with the many famous melodies and set pieces all in proper context. There is an erotic charge running through many of the exchanges of the principals, and McVicar sees sexual frustration as the key to many of these characters’ problems. This may have led to raised eyebrows at Glyndebourne, but it does make a lot of sense, given the ultimate events of the tragedy. He also opts to include the original spoken dialogue rather than the spurious recitatives, another aspect that works remarkably well. It fleshes the story out properly instead of holding up the action until the next big tune, as one might suspect it would.

So full marks for not messing with Bizet’s general instructions too much. Praise must also be heaped on the London Philharmonic, who respond magnificently to the flamboyant young maestro, Philippe Jordan (any relation to Armin, I wonder?). His energy and physical intensity, which is visibly there for all to see in the hectic, brilliant prelude (where he resembles Escamillo!), communicates through to the orchestra at every turn, and Bizet’s wonderful scoring is heard in all its glory. One could cite numerous examples, but hear particularly the characterful wind solos of the Act 2 Entr’acte, or the beautifully weighted brass chords that punctuate the famous ‘Toreador Song’, helping one to appreciate the harmony afresh. It really is a superb aural-only experience, the Gallic lightness making one understand why Richard Strauss once advised young composers learning orchestration to study Bizet’s scores, not Wagner’s.

So the reported controversy surrounding this production appears to be wholly related to the central casting. Here we have one of the world’s finest mezzos seemingly cast against type. Anne Sofie von Otter herself admits that she may not be everyone’s idea of the ideal Carmen – “too tall, Nordic and cool”, as she puts it, and remembering great Carmens of the past (Berganza, de los Angeles, Price, Migenes etc.) she does have a point. All I can say is that she seemed to me wholly convincing, sporting a blazing auburn wig to help with the gypsy look (plus Sue Blane’s magnificent costumes) and acting and singing with such conviction that criticism was all but silenced. McVicar and von Otter have obviously worked on other aspects of the character, and rather than the smouldering wildcat, we get a more mature portrayal of a woman who can, as the director has it “eat men whole – and laugh while she’s doing it”. She is a woman desperately seeking love, a free spirit that simply needs the right partner. This really does make the final tragedy all the more poignant, because we really believe that she has at last found the right person in Escamillo, but, as the cards tell her, fate has something else in store for her. The famous routines are all superbly choreographed, and she raises a laugh from the audience as she manages the second verse of her ‘Seguidilla’ while lighting a cigar, quite a feat!

Her Don José, American tenor Marcus Haddock, also gives a multi-layered portrayal, and his character probably develops more than any other. He constantly reminds us that this is a man hiding many demons, not least the fact that he killed a man in a duel, so we begin to realise early on what he is capable of. There is also the shadow of his mother, who we learn wanted him to become a priest (all this is in the invaluable spoken dialogue), so he is an unstable individual. His beautifully sung ‘Flower Song’ is not just a showstopper, but tinged with all the psychological baggage of a haunted man. The final confrontation with Carmen is riveting, with the fatal stabbing ghastly but not in the least melodramatic. This is believable verismo.

As Escamillo, Laurent Naouri is also encouraged to act with some subtlety, to enjoy his big moments but give us some character insight. Thus his oft-heard ‘Toreador Song’ is punctuated by glances towards Carmen, who responds with knowing eye contact (obviously the camera close-up helps here), and an immediate chemistry is established. His is less a testosterone-fuelled macho man than a virile counterpart to Carmen herself; one can actually believe they would have made a satisfied couple.

The Micaëlla, Lisa Milne, is a touch matronly for me, but I suppose we have to believe in her as the saintly sister figure, and while I miss some of the fragility of others in this part, she sings beautifully and makes a good contrast to Carmen. All the smaller parts are taken with real relish, and I particularly liked Jonathan Best’s Zuniga. Costumes, as mentioned, are stunning, with the stage for the final act dominated by black and a symbolic blood red. The dancing is a delight, sexy and energetic, and stage designs (by Michael Vale) atmospheric yet practical.

The extras on the double DVD set are worth having. There are revealing interviews with director and principals, as well as substantial individual features on music, costume, choreography and stage fighting. There is an illustrated synopsis, cast gallery and a ten-minute feature on the famous Glyndebourne garden. Having loaded the discs with the extras, the booklet is devoted to a specially commissioned reworking of the Carmen libretto by Jeanette Winterson, entitled ‘The World Beyond’, a moving and worthwhile updating of the basic story.

Whether you want to fork out for two full price discs may depend totally on your idea of the casting of the eponymous heroine. When this was broadcast last year, some of my colleagues thought von Otter so wrong they couldn’t watch it through to the end. While I accept she may not be what is expected visually, I think it is short-sighted to not see the whole package. Carmen does dominate, but there is an awful lot going on around her, and David McVicar has managed quite the most intelligent, believable opera production I’ve seen for some time. This is ensemble directing at its best. With von Otter (and everyone else, for that matter) in absolutely superb voice, accompanied by gloriously inspired orchestral playing, this is a musical and visual feast. Sue Judd’s subtle camera work helps the television experience. The BBC packaging is first rate, making an altogether outstanding record of a thrilling event.

Tony Haywood

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Other cast
Zuniga (bass) – Jonathan Best
Mercédès (mezzo) – Christine Rice
Moralès (baritone) – Hans Voschezang
Directed for television by Sue Judd