Bizet - Carmen

ONP Bastille, Tuesday June 13 2017

Conductor: Mark Elder. Production: Calixto Bieito. Sets: Alfons Flores. Costumes: Mercè Paloma. Lighting: Alberto Rodríguez Vega. Don José: Bryan Hymel. Escamillo: Ildar Abdrazakov. Le Dancaïre: Boris Grappe. Le Remendado: François Rougier. Zuniga: François Lis. Carmen: Anita Rachvelishvili. Micaëla: Marina Costa-Jackson. Frasquita: Vannina Santoni. Mercédès: Antoinette Dennefeld. Moralès: Jean-Luc Ballestra. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine/Paris Opera Children's Choir.

In March I wrote: “As far as I remember, this was the best Carmen production I've seen, however upset the noisy old biddies behind were at the absence of fans and mantillas and castanets and donkeys and all the rest. I may well go back and see it with Anita Rachvelishvili and Hymel in June...” I did and crikey am I glad. The best production of Carmen I’ve ever seen (still, ridiculously, booed a bit), this time with the best ever cast. Alagna is a magnificent José and Antonacci is (or at any rate was) a magnificent Carmen, but I’ve only seen them surrounded by less remarkable singers. Last night, on the other hand, was one of those very rare occasions – especially for a repertoire war-horse – when the whole cast was from excellent to quite simply dazzling and, this time, largely up to the Bastille’s dimensions, unreasonable though it is to stage Carmen there.

Ildar Abdrazakov is a resounding Escamillo, quite monolithic, especially impressive in the clarion upper range and Marina Costa-Jackson is a full-voiced, flesh-and-blood Micaëla, a surprise and a relief compared with the more usual simpering lyric played as a pious nonentity (“La couille” – “the pillock”, a friend of mine calls her). Above all, Bryan Hymel and Anita Rachvelishvili must be two of the most outstanding singers active today. Hymel has now, as the French put it, nothing to envy Alagna for: he is the picture of peak vocal health, powerful and ringing but with a kind of “hairline crack” in the voice that only makes it more engaging and moving. Rachvelishvili’s warm, enveloping timbre, vast dynamic range and the apparently total control she exercises over them with the surest of judgment are just astounding, and combine with similarly intelligent, well-judged acting – supported, in this case, by Bieito's detailed production - to compose a self-confident, in-charge Carmen, not a lascivious minx. Her performance provided a string of spine-tinglingly memorable moments, perhaps best of all "La mort."

Also, to me Elder's conducting - livelier, even brasher - was a better fit with the work and its staging than Bertrand de Billy's in March.

France's Michelin guides use a star system to rate attractions: one star is "interesting", two are "worth a detour" and three "worth the journey". I have sometimes put together a trip specifically to see a work or singer. I flew to NYC for War & Peace and to Madrid for Bomarzo, I travelled to Vienna to hear Voigt as Isolde and Stockholm to hear Ann Hallenberg in Brahms songs - and so on. I can see myself, from now on, scanning the schedules for Hymel and Rachvelishvili. They are each definitely worth a journey.

Here, in a dark alley near the Bastille, Bryan Hymel (possibly wishing he were somewhere else, with Anita R.) meets a different, though very remarkable, Carmen.

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