Sensational Hungarian Tenor István Kovácsházi in Helsinki’s Carmen

FinlandFinland  Georges Bizet, Carmen: Finnish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Kari Tikka (conductor), 17.9.2011 (GF)

Carmen – Matilda Paulsson
Don José – István Kovácsházi
Escamillo – Tommi Hakala
Micaëla – Mari Palo
Zuniga – Koit Soasepp
Morales – Jussi Merikanto
Frasquita – Hanna Rantala
Mercédès – Niina Keitel
Dancaïro – Jaakko Kortekangas
Remendado – Aki Alamikkotervo
Lilla Pastia – Timo Paavola

This production, first seen in November 2007, was anything but new. But it was to me, especially by comparison to a less than convincing performance of the previous production I had seen, even though it boasted Agnes Baltsa as Carmen. The original director was Arnaud Bernard, but for this reprise premiere Timo Paavola and Jeremias Erkkilä have tidied it up. To what degree I can’t tell. The action is transported to the 1930s and the time of the Spanish Civil War. This is most obvious in the third act with some military vehicles on stage. The sets are rather subdued and the costumes mainly brown, beige and green. Also the street urchins in the first act are in darkish colours, lending an everyday stamp to the whole production. The director(s) evidently strive for a cinematographic approach with the acts chopped up in short scenes, often with a black curtain separating them. Sometimes more intimate scenes are played and acted with only a limited part of the stage shown. It is an equivalent of close-ups on a video or DVD production. Though irritating at first, this chopped-up approach has its merits.

The most illuminating scene comes in the last act, where we encounter Carmen in Escamillo’s bedroom and the crowd and parade take place outside, heard and partly seen through the window. Escamillo joins Carmen and they both wave their hands to the people outside. It is quite clear that Carmen and Escamillo are already a couple.

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G.Bizet, Carmen,
C.Abbado, / LSO
P.Domingo, I.Cotrubas, S.Milnes et al.

It seems that conductor Kari Tikka has a predilection for slow tempos and there are several scenes that don’t catch fire as they should. The cigarette girls in the first act seem hampered, the gypsy song at the beginning of second only ignites at the very end and there are some other scenes that suffer from a certain bloodlessness. The orchestral playing is as usual fine and the choruses are well drilled but overall there was a lack of intensity.

In the title role, Swedish mezzo-soprano Matilda Paulsson was a visually appealing gypsy – as she also was at Opera på Skäret this summer. Moreover she will sing Carmen in Stockholm as well next spring. Vocally she seemed less confident than at Skäret, presumably since the Finnish National Opera is a much lager hall and forced her to press the voice unduly. The result was a gritty quality that also marred her debut song recital disc a couple of years ago. Mari Palo was a good-looking Micaëla but her delivery was partly shrill, though her third act aria was very nuanced. Former ‘Singer of the World’ Tommi Hakala was a dashing Escamillo, but his delivery was wobbly at times. I don’t know whether he was having an off-day or if a heavy schedule is wearing down his voice.

The great surprise was István Kovácsházi, the Hungarian tenor cast as Don José. Early on he seemed a rather stiff actor, but it turned out that this was a very thought-through reading of his role. Don José is quite a shy and awkward person, and as the opera proceeded he gave a very convincing portrait of this young man who gradually loses his foothold and becomes a murderer. Vocally he reminded me very much of the Canadian lyric tenor Leopold Simoneau, who was my first Don José on records: the same timbre, the same lightness, the same ability to find a myriad of nuances. The duet with Micaëla in the first act hasn’t been sung this beautifully since Simoneau’s days! It turned out that he also had lots of power in reserve, although he did not need to resort to it in the Flower Song, which was an inward and moving – private – statement to Carmen, not a public speech. During the rest of the act, in the third act’s confrontation with Escamillo and the concluding murder scene he sang with tremendous ring. This was without doubt one of most complete Don Josés I have ever heard. Matilda Paulsson was strong and convincing in the finale as well. In the minor roles, Koit Soasepp’s Zuniga made a great impression and the quintet was another highlight.

There were some flies in the ointment, I am afraid, but István Kovácsházi is a major find. He is currently a member of the ensemble of Mannheim National Theatre and has Bacchus, Stolzing and Parsifal in his repertoire (read a review of his performance as Lohengrin at the Budapest Wagner Days here). Not only that, he also sings the great Mozart roles. In other words, this is an extremely versatile singer, and I hope to hear more from him!

Göran Forsling