Life & Culture

Nice singing, shame about almost everything else

Aigul Akhmetshina is magnificent, but as for the production...



Royal Opera House | ★★✩✩✩

Reviewed by  Stephen Pollard

Before we get into what’s wrong with the Royal Opera’s new production of Carmen, let’s start with what’s right: the singing. Well, most of it.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see some magnificent Carmens at the Royal Opera House, from Teresa Berganza and Agnes Baltsa to Maria Ewing and Anna Caterina Antonacci. Aigul Akhmetshina is right up there. Not only does the Russian have a magnificent, rich, warm and deep mezzo — her lower register is breathtaking — she is a compelling stage presence. You simply cannot take your eyes off her. There has been a lot of hype around the 27-year-old and it’s a refreshing change to report that it’s well-merited. As a graduate of the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme she has been brought along sensibly and from interviews it’s clear she has her head well screwed on – which is important as she is on the verge of operatic stardom. She has already sung Carmen at the Met and is due to sing the role at Glyndebourne this summer.

It’s also a pleasure to hear Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as Don Jose. His French may be as bad as mine but his voice remains beautiful and powerful at 57 and this is a rare chance to hear him (it’s his first ROH role for over a decade). Olga Kulchynska’s Micaela is equally world-class.

Kostas Smoriginas’s Escamillo, not so much. The one thing you need other than a voice for the bullfighter is swagger. And although Smoriginas is a handsome fellow, the vibe was more, “I’ve come to check your VAT returns” than, “mess with my bird and I’ll kill you.” But that may have more to do with what’s wrong with this production — which is everything else.

Bizet’s miraculous score is pretty much conductor-proof. But Antonello Manacorda certainly put that to the test with some of the flabbiest and least incisive conducting I’ve heard for a long time at the ROH. What is it with some conductors who seem to think French music means the chance to wallow? It kills it. Carmen of all scores needs a mix of precision and rubato. This had neither.

As for Damiano Michieletto’s production, well, I like to think I’m open-minded and interested in new takes on old masterpieces. Michieletto’s own Cav and Pag, for example, is a brilliant rethinking, set in the 1950s. But his Carmen epitomises everything wrong with directors determined to put themselves ahead of the opera they are directing. It’s set in 1970s Seville, with all sorts of sub-plots acted out that have no basis in the score or libretto such as the presence on stage of a woman dressed in a high-combed black mantilla who follows Don Jose and Carmen around. Apparently she is meant to be his mum. Why? And what’s with the silent-movie style kidnapping of Zuniga, here a policeman whose ransom is paid by a fellow officer. What does this add other than to signal the director thinks Carmen needs improving?

Right from the start, what Bizet has as soldiers passing the time by lightly flirting with the cigarette girls is here a group of snarling policemen using the power of their office to harass women. Act 2, set by Bizet in Lillas Pastia’s inn, takes place inside a sex club, with Frasquita and Mercedes – and, it’s implied, Carmen, too – sex workers. And Act 3’s “wild spot in the mountains” becomes a warehouse full of contraband.

The set itself is drab and repetitive, with a revolving grey room which takes on the guise of a police station, sex club, warehouse and bull-ring. It looks as if the ROH had no money left to spend after paying the musicians.

But I didn’t actually want to kill any of the musicians. The Entr’actes, on the other hand, are accompanied by children standing in front of the stage curtain holding up letters on card spelling out, in French, “a month later” etc. I think it’s supposed to be cute, but the only effect it had on me was to make we want to kill the audience members who applauded the stupid, annoying and pointless idea.

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