Bizet - Carmen

Opéra Comique, Paris, Saturday June 20 2009

Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Production: Adrian Noble. Sets & Costumes: Mark Thompson. Lighting: Jean Kalman. Carmen: Anna Caterina Antonacci. Don José: ???????*. Micaëla: Anne-Catherine Gillet. Escamillo: Nicolas Cavallier. Le Dancaïre: Françis Dudziak. Le Remendado: Vincent Ordonneau. Zuniga: Matthew Brook. Moralès: Riccardo Novaro. Frasquita: Virginie Pochon. Mercédès: Annie Gill / Louise Innes. Lillas Pastia: Simon Davies. Un guide: Lawrence Wallington. The Monteverdi Choir. Hauts-de-Seine children's choir. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.

For Le Monde, “Obviously Anna Caterina Antonacci steals the show, embodying a Carmen of icy fire, with impeccable diction and sovereign musicality, ardent but never carried away by her passions. Her vocal projection enables her to murmur what so many of her fellow-singers hammer out.” According to Webthea, “She combines her beauty, sensuality and acting strengths with impeccable diction and the charm of a slight Italian accent, flowing projection and low notes that pierce hearts.” For, “Daughter of the people, sensual and provocative as Sofia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida, with her generous décolleté, wasp waist and flowing hair, Anna Caterina Antonacci is the most sumptuous of Carmens.” For the FT, “She is quite simply extraordinary in her handling of text and song, pulling off subtle inflexions that would be lost in a larger house, but she is also a sexy stage animal with the physical magnetism to explain her appeal.” And as a friend of mine put it in a nutshell: “She just waltzed through the part and that was what was so enjoyable.”

Not finding words to describe Antonacci in the part, I decided, as you see, to borrow other people’s. She was astonishingly at ease, as intelligent and nuanced as Berganza but more animal (not difficult, admittedly) and more natural by miles. Ars est celare artem, so we’re told, and here there was simply no sign of acting. Remarkable, and certainly the best Carmen I’ve ever seen and heard. But she was not the only star of the show…

Gardiner and his revolutionary orchestra did nearly as much for Bizet as for Berlioz, bringing vim and vigour, bite, balance and detail, “dusting off” the score as many reviewers put it and giving us, among other things, a rip-roaring overture and a prelude to act 4 for the annals. The Monteverdi Choir did much the same for the choral parts. As the FT critic, again, put it: “[They] may act like undergraduates on a gap year in Seville” – they were clearly enjoying the romp – “but I doubt if the chorus in Carmen has ever sounded so punchy, clean-cut and articulated.” Again, a wealth of previously unnoticed details and nuance emerged to surprise us.

Then there was the tenor. The one originally scheduled dropped out, practically at the last minute if the announcement was to be believed, and in stepped a young Brazilian. I wouldn’t say that, out of context, he was a star, but after all you always root for the stand-in, especially if he’s young and it’s his big break. He put in a more-than-creditable performance, definitely better than the José I heard in Sydney, and more than that, a genuinely touching flower aria. He had all the notes, falsetto or not, as needed, a feat not guaranteed in this tricky role, and also turned out to be quite an impassioned actor. So at the end he got nearly as warm a reception as Antonacci. Now I just have to find out who he was*.

Nicolas Cavallier was a rough-hewn sort of Escamillo, and Anne-Catherine Gillet a silvery, tremulous Micaëla with a lot more volume than from her timbre, you’d expect and a stiff, protestant sort of stage presence. The rest of the cast were as good as they ought to be – and the children’s chorus slightly better than usual.

Some reviews have said the production aimed to avoid cliché. They must have meant the single, ugly set: our, by now, old friend the bare Opéra Comique stage, and in it a sort of circular ramp on radial concrete piers, reminiscent to me of the old Fiat factory at Lingotto in Turin, in looks part broken amphitheatre, part multi-storey car park. In act one there was a kind of oval cistern in the floor from which the cigarette girls (not John the Baptist) emerged; in act two, oriental carpets and Moroccan lanterns; in act three, ladders and a faintly ridiculous giant moon; in act four, wooden fences between the piers and red and yellow banners hanging down. No horses, donkeys or chickens. But the ladies of the chorus spread their legs, lifted their skirts and fanned themselves to cool off as usual: clichés if ever I saw them; and there were some pretty corny theatrical ideas like dropping the (mainly golden, sometimes red) lights at key moments to leave only a spot on the soloist, or slow-motion crowd movements during orchestral passages. The costumes were mostly ill-fitting, though Carmen’s Act 4 Goya-like dress and bolero, in black and gold brocades, made up in the end for the others. It was, to me (and others) a disappointingly conventional show for one blessed with such a great Carmen and such sounds from orchestra and chorus.

*Got him, thanks to the friend quoted above: "The tenor Fabiano Cordeiro was born in Brazil. He first discovered an interest in music through buying a CD of Joan Sutherland and Carlo Bergonzi's La Traviata at a car boot sale."


  1. Fabiano Cordeiro is the next Caruso. I am glad that he is starting to receive the attention he deserves.


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