Francesca Zambello’s Carmen for the Royal Opera House has more going for it than is immediately apparent. On the face of it it’s a very traditional, conservative production; period costumes, literal sets, hordes of kids in Acts 1 and 4, live animals, but a close look reveals rather more. Zambello reveals her intentions during the overture where we see a manacled, distraught Don José dragged to execution by a masked executioner. This is going to be Don José’s story rather than one that focuses almost exclusively on the title character. What we see here is a stark contrast between what Don José really wants; respectability, an obedient wife, conformity with the Church, honour and what key choices, accidents and conflicts drive him to; criminality, liminality, execution and, we may suppose, damnation. The staging subtly highlights each of the key moments in Don José’s descent; his arrest and demotion in Act1, the fight with Zuniga in Act 2 and the realisation, in Act 3, that Carmen will never be the women he really wants reinforced by Micaëla’s aria that ironically offers him the choice he can no longer make and does so unmistakeably in terms of Catholic eschatology. There is so much more going on here than a sexy woman and some pretty tunes.
The cast is stellar. Anna Caterina Antonacci is a pretty spectacular Carmen. She’s a very accomplished singer but it’s her acting that shines here. She steers a very fine line just short of playing Carmen as a complete slut. Like many things in this production, it’s a detail that makes the difference. Jonas Kaufmann sings Don José. He starts off very prim and proper, almost coy, becoming wilder as the piece progresses. This is signified not just by his acting and vocal style but also by a progressively degenerate hair cut. It scarcely needs saying that he sings very well. He has beautiful high notes coupled with a rather baritonal lower register. It’s not a classic opéra comique voice but it’s lovely to listen to. The rest of the casting is in the luxury bracket too. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo is a sinewy, almost rough voiced Escamillo but he oozes testosterone and totally commands the stage. The chemistry between him and Antonacci in Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre is very strong. Norah Amsellem is perhaps a bit mature sounding for Micaëla but she sings and acts extremely well. Her big number in Act 3 is brought off very well indeed. Matthew Rose is a bluff straightforward Zuniga and in a final bit of luxury casting Jacques Imbrailo plays the rather small role of Moralès. The orchestra, conducted by Tony Pappano, plays rather suavely though not without vigour. The overture is so loud I initially thought I had my volume levels set wrong! So, musically excellent across the board though in my ideal world there would be more difference in tone colour between Carmen and Micaëla.
The video direction is by Jonathan Haswell. It’s OK but not great. He’s good in the big crowd scenes, letting us see what is going on but gets some nasty attacks of closeupitis later in the piece. The knife fight between Escamillo and Don José is particularly distracting. There’s no real excuse as the stage set isn’t huge and he’s got an excellent 1080i picture to work with. The sound options on Blu-ray are PCM stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. On the surround track the voices are balanced well forward but it’s quite vivid, if not quite as spectacular as recent PCM 5.0 releases. I think that uncompressed, unprocessed audio will likely become the norm on Blu-ray in the opera market. There are English, French, Spanish, German and Chinese subtitles and a booklet with a short essay, track listing and synopsis. There are no extras.
This production, with a different cast, is also available as a 3-D Blu-ray disk (for all those opera fans with 3-D capability at home?!?). That version features Christine Rice and Brian Hymel. I haven’t seen the disk but I did review the cinema release about a year ago. The only advantage it offers is the contrast of a genuine mezzo as Carmen and a lighter soprano as Micaëla.