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Carmen, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Carmen, Royal Opera

Carmen, Royal Opera

Sparks fly from pairing of Roberto Alagna with Latvia's Elina Garanca

Elina Garanca: femme fatale
Buoyed by winning the Classic FM Innovation award at Friday's Classic FM Gramophone Awards for its cut-price ticket offer for Sun readers, the Royal Opera House was at it again last night with the return of Francesca Zambello's production of Carmen. There was even a short speech from Deborah Bull, welcoming the Sun contingent to the house while, of course, reminding everyone to turn off their mobile phones. 
For anybody making a first trip to Covent Garden, this would have been a cracking choice. Not only was there Roberto Alagna making his house debut as Don Jose, but also the electrifying Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca in the title role. Carmens have come in many shapes and sizes, not all of them flattering, but the leggy, magnetic Garanca actually looks like the kind of woman guys could end up killing each other over. God knows what goes on when she goes on girls' nights out with her pal Anna Netrebko. Oh, and she can sing too, with consummate poise and tonal control.
Conductor Bertrand de Billy helmed the orchestra with certainty, launching them into the overture a notch or two quicker than average and never allowing his grip to slacken as the drama uncoiled to its murderous climax under the Andalusian sun. The first half, particularly, must rate as one of the most perfect fusions of drama, character and brilliant tunes you'll find on an operatic stage, and it fizzed along here like stampeding cattle. The delinquent air of the town square was colourfully rendered, with its soldiers, gypsies, hustlers and bad-ass gals from the tobacco factory. Carmen herself sashayed out to toy with the local boys like a woman comfortable in her ability to raise or lower the ambient temperature with a swish of a tail-feather.
Before long she was giving the glad eye to Alagna's Don Jose. We'd already heard his love duet with Micaela, the demure girl from his home village (soprano Liping Zhang, showing off her peerless tone), but it couldn't prevent him from being sucked into Carmen's force field of lust, passion and danger. Soon, Ms Garanca was driving poor Roberto wild with her sweet Spanish balladry, her cleavage, and some libidinous writhing. At one point she stretched herself languidly backwards across a table, leaving him to sing up her skirt.
By act three, he was already losing his grip. It's a structural flaw in the piece that Jose and Carmen are so transparently mismatched, and in fairness to Carmen she's pretty upfront about her inability to commit, even if Jose is too bedazzled to listen. Hence he spends all of the second half stomping around under a black cloud of rage and jealousy, making little effort to get into the rogueish spirit of the gang of gypsy brigands that Carmen is surrounded by (can it be long before the EU cracks down on this negative stereotyping of the Romany people, who are depicted spending all their time drinking, gambling, smuggling and having sex?) Moreover, you can see Carmen's point when she dismisses Jose as a bit of a wuss, wanting to run back to his army barracks when he hears the roll-call bugle or yearning for his dear old mum.
But the climax was a scorcher, with the desperate Jose confronting Carmen after she's taken up with Escamillo (bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo), the insufferably self-important toreador. Alagna isn't the most golden-voiced tenor on the planet, and he sounded a little ragged round the upper edges in some of the early exchanges, but he does have soul. Gaunt, stubbly and looking as if he hadn't slept for a week, he imbued his final pleas to Carmen to come back to him with agonising pathos, growing more distraught as she became colder and more adamant. You wanted to stand up and shout "get over it, man! Move on with your life." But it was too late for that.
Performances: Tuesday October 6, Saturday October 10, Tuesday October 13, Wednesday October 21, Saturday October 24 (all 7pm)

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