Excitement on Stage and off Makes for a Memorable Carmen
Bizet, Carmen: Soloists, Chorus and Children’s Chorus of Opernhaus Zürich, Philharmonia Zürich, Cornelius Meister (conductor), Opernhaus Zürich, 31.3.16. (RP)
Carmen: Anaïk Morel
Micaëla: Shelley Jackson
Mercédès: Irène Friedli
Frasquita: Rebeca Olvera
Don José: Arturo Chacón-Cruz
Escamillo: Alexander Vinogradov
Le Remendado: Dmitry Ivanchey
Dancaïro: Adrian Timpau
Moralès: Yuriy Tsiple
Zuniga: Roberto Lorenzi
Director: Matthias Hartmann
Stage design: Volker Hintermeier
Costumes: Su Bühler
Lighting: Martin Gebhardt
Chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger
Choreography: Teresa Rotemberg
A bit of offstage excitement heightens the sense of occasion of any night at the opera. When I arrived at the Zurich Opera House, there were a large number of students outside, which is not uncommon here. As I went to take my seat, there was competition between the young people and, for the sake of ease, let’s just say regular patrons for the same seats. Was it a ticketing error, or were the students told to just take any available seats? Good humor prevailed, and it was all sorted out quickly. The dreaded spotlight next appeared on the curtain. The scheduled Carmen was ill and had cancelled that morning. Fortunately, Anaïk Morel, who sang the role in Stuttgart earlier in the season, was available and willing, and she was whisked down to Zurich in a chauffeur-driven limousine.
The house lights went down, conductor Cornelius Meister bounded onto the podium, quickly acknowledged the audience and, as he turned to face the orchestra, gave the downbeat. The sound just exploded out of the pit – fast and furious. The orchestra was splendid throughout. In many ways, Meister was both the star and the glue of the performance, easing a singer with no rehearsal into the production; and handling the delicate task of simultaneously accommodating singers who command the stage vocally and dramatically, and those whose vocal gifts are of a more lyrical nature, with subtle if no less potent shadings. He managed it all.
Morel has the vocal and dramatic savvy, as well as the benefit of multiple performances, to put her stamp on the role, even without the benefit of rehearsal. She wrapped her beautiful, lyric mezzo around Bizet’s melodies, imbuing them with sensuality and abandon. This Carmen did not want to die, but she could not argue with the fate the cards dictated, and would never acquiesce to any man out of mere fear. When she entered on Escamillo’s arm to the cheers of the crowd in the last act, triumph shined in her face, totally in keeping with her character and justifiably proud of her success.
Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz’s Don José was just one of the guys, with a bit of a sad-dog look about him, who entered a downward spiral of despair and desperation as his fatal attraction to Carmen ran its course. It was a characterization perfectly in sync with his dark-hued lyric tenor, and in scale with that of Morel’s Carmen. Visceral vocal thrills are beyond his grasp in the role at this stage of his vocal development, but not dramatic ones. Desolate, he pulled the remains of the flower that Carmen had given him out of his knapsack with such sincerity that it touched one’s heart. The aria that followed was beautifully sung, with the attractive dark timbre of his voice effortlessly blooming into ringing high notes.
Micaëla makes more of an impact in this production than in any other that I have seen, simply because you can see her. How often for her third-act aria is Micaëla stuck up in a dark mountain passage with the clutter of the gypsy camp below? In Matthias Hartmann’s production, she is front and center whenever she is on stage. From the first act where Micaëla is ogled and then manhandled by the soldiers, to the third, where she musters her courage to persuade Don José to return to his dying mother, Shelley Jackson seized the moment. I liked her singing best at its most dramatic, when her voice was gleaming and resonant.
Alexander Vinogradov was the Escamillo the last time I saw this production in 2014. With his dark good looks, charisma and commanding voice, he is a natural for the role. His impact is a notch above the rest of the cast, although baritone Adrian Timpau as Dancaïro is cut from the same cloth. He too has vocal glamour to burn and a magnetic stage persona. Rebeca Olvera as Frasquita and Irène Friedli as Mercédès were more fun-loving companions for Carmen than sinister accomplices, bubbling in delight with the good fortunes they see in the cards. Their nimble singing added to the verve and wit of the Act II quintet.
This is the most simple of stagings: a large disc upon which a few elements evoke the entrance to the cigarette factory, Lillas Pastia’s inn, a mountain passage and the square in Seville outside the arena where Carmen and Don José meet for the last time. It works at all levels. There were aahs when the curtain went up on Act IV: the disc a parched bone color with only a gnarly olive tree on it, set against a cloudless, pale blue sky. It is the perfect platform for the chorus which sang with exuberance, although the children’s chorus topped them. Some of the antics for both could be reined in a bit, especially in the opening scene. There are men shaking their booty just a bit too much. This isn’t The Full Monty, guys.
A final thought on the offstage drama. The students did more than fill seats: they brought glamour to the evening. Some of the young ladies could have graced the red carpet at an award show. There were also boys with remarkable sense of style. (Meister has a sartorial flare second to none.) You read about, or have seen in the movies, the social and romantic intrigues that took place at the opera in the past. These kids were scattered throughout the house, their eyes darting, and sparks flew as they met. There were also a few discrete kisses in the dark. It was great. More so was the rapt attention that they paid to what was happening on stage and in the pit. During the Act III prelude, all eyes were on the orchestra and the beautiful sounds coming out of the woodwind section. I spend a lot of nights at the opera. This one I will always remember, thanks in part to them.