Carmen at the Opéra comique

Bizet’s Carmen premiered at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1875.  In 2009 it was revived there in a production by Adrian Noble.  That production was filmed for TV and has now been released on disk.  Having watched it I’m asking myself whether it’s an attempt in some way to “recreate” something similar to the 1875 experience.  Alas, there’s nothing in the documentation to help with this question either way but two things intrigued me. The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique is in the pit which suggests an attempt to get a “period sound”.  Secondly, the spoken dialogue is not the version I’m accustomed to and there’s quite a bit more of it.  Is this, perhaps, the original 1875 dialogue?

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Speculation about intent aside it’s a very decent production. It’s essentially traditional.  It’s set in mid 19th century Spain and nothing out of the ordinary happens though there are some interesting touches.  For example, the cigarette factory in the opening scene is presented as a sort of fishbowl or aquarium in which the onlookers can voyeuristically study the girls.  The character development is nicely done.  As always the main interest is in Don José’s transformation from mummy’s boy to delinquent.  It’s managed well here with the interesting twist that the Don José of Act 4 seems more delusional than bitter and resentful.  Escamillo is quite slow burn.  It takes him a while to develop swagger and even then it seems more like a stage persona but it’s a convincing interpretation.  (Which raises a silly thought that if one paired Don José off with a tuberculous Micaëla and let Escamillo and Carmen do their thing it would basically be La Bohème with bulls.)  The take on Carmen is pretty conventional but effective.  Overall, and partly because of the dialogue, it actually comes over as a rather dark interpretation.

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The performances are good.  Anna Catarina Antonacci’s take on the title character may be fairly conventional but it’s nuanced and convincing and she sings extremely well.  It’s as good as her Covent Garden performance of a few years earlier.  Andrew Richards pulls off the version of Don José required here very effectively and I warmed to him as the show progressed.  The same was true of Nicolas Cavallier as Escamillo though I’m not sure either of them quite match the starry casting of some other Carmens of this era (it was when Don José was one of Jonas Kaufmann’s most frequently performed roles).  Anne-Catherine Gillet is an appealing Micaëla and Matthew Brook is a large and swaggering Zuniga who does “drunk” rather well.  No complaints about the competently acted and sung supporting roles.

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The chorus is the Monteverdi Choir supported by the children of the Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine (who manage to be very effective and not at all cutesy).  The crowd scenes are well done and well sung though it’s all a bit frenetic on the small Opéra Comique stage.  The orchestra sounds great but I really struggle to see how they are much different to a “modern” orchestra.  I did notice that the flutes were wooden but any other differences were way too subtle for me to notice.  Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts brilliantly managing to coax both delicacy and almost overwhelming power out of his players.

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Technically it’s interesting. The sound on Blu-ray is excellent in both surround and stereo modes.  The picture though perhaps is not up to the latest releases.  It’s a bit soft grained.  Nowadays everything is filmed in 4k or higher resolution and downsampled for disk which gives a very “crisp” look.  This looks like it was filmed with 2009 era TV cameras in “made for broadcast” mode.  I guess one could just pretend to be in the gas lit and probably very smoky theatre in 1975!  Perhaps because of the video quality François Roussillon who directed for TV uses more close ups than in most of his recordings despite the Opéra Comique stage being so small.  It’s not bad to watch but it does feel a bit retro.  There are no extras on the disk.  The booklet has a synopsis, a track listing and an essay that tells you all the things you already know about Carmen and answers none of the questions this production raises.  Subtitle options are French, English, German, Italian, Japanese and Korean.

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Carmen is really well served on disk.  Traditionalists can have Antonacci and Kaufmann in a carefully worked out production by Francesca Zambello for the Royal Opera House.  Kaufmann can also be found in an intriguingly uncluttered Zürich production by Matthias Hartmann. There’s also the high octane combo of Roberto Alagna (much better than he was at the Met) and Béatrice Uria-Monzon in an intriguing Bieito production at the Liceu that explores the commodification of sex.  And just for fun you can watch a scantily clad and very damp Gaëlle Arquez at Bregenz!  Even alongside this competition, this Opéra Comique version has some unique touches that make it worth a look.

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