Power Cuts: a Slow and Gloomy Carmen

ItalyItaly  Bizet, Carmen.  Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro dell’Opera, Rome. Chorus Master, Roberto Gabbiani.  Conductor, Emmanuel Villaume.  Co-production with Teatro Municipal of Santiago, Chile directed by Emilio Sagi, with sets by Daniel Bianco and Costumes by Renata Schussheim. Teatro Costanzi, Rome 20.06.2014 (JB)

Teatro dell’Opera CARMEN Musica di Georges Bizet

Carmen  Clémentine Margaine
Don José            Dmytro Popov
Escamillo            Kyle Ketelsen
Micaela          Eleanora Buratto

Poor Carmen!  It started at the first performance.  A fair portion of the audience and even some quarters of the press thought it infra dig to adopt the hypocritical censorship of the more pretentious pseudo intellectuals.  Believing what is unpopular to believe, has always been a Parisian occupation ever since the Revolution.  You might say that Bizet’s opera caused a revolution by not being a revolution.  But you would need to make the right noises from the “inside” to be in on this bizarre view.

All that to explain why the world premiere of Carmen was not exactly the flop that you have read about.  No opera that has a first successful run for forty-five performances can be considered a flop.  All the same, the opera has a history of mishaps and I’ve even witnessed some of these myself.

I saw two of the greatest ladies ever to grace the opera stage –Giulietta Simionato and Fiorenza Cossotto- both give embarrassingly bad performances of the gipsy girl, largely because they were too old for the role when I saw them.  Both Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett were in their prime when I saw their Carmen, Grace scoring top marks for sensuality (among other assets, she was an excellent dancer) and Shirley for a profound intelligence she brought to the character of Carmen, which Bizet so well provides for in his music, but which is often ignored: a great singer-actress is called for and la Verrett was all of that.

The Rome Opera had advertised the young Georgian mezzo, Anita Rachvelishvili, as Carmen, but for medical reasons, that lady was obliged to withdraw.  It seemed promising to have a young, French mezzo making her Rome debut: Clémentine Margaine.  It’s been a long time since we had a notable French Carmen.  So it is sad to report that this lady is not that one.  For all I know Ms Margaine may have a good voice but even though, like all other major theatres, the Rome Opera has assisted, discreet amplification, her voice was inaudible throughout.  Has she only ever sung in very small theatres?  In any role an underpowered voice is a liability; in Carmen it is a disaster.

There was worse.  The conductor, Emmanuel Villaume, chose tempi so slow –especially in the habanera and the seguidilla- as to be the kiss of death to Bizet’s life-force.  There is no excuse for any conductor ignoring the valuable lesson of Georges Prétre’s 1964 recording (with Callas, no less): Prétre did something so obvious that it now seems inconceivable that all conductors before and since have not done it: he meticulously observed the precise  metronome markings which Bizet so thoughtfully supplies at every change of tempo (of which there are many). Take for instance, the gipsy song with chorus which opens the second act.  This works up to a whirlwind frenzy at the end; through the extended accelerando, every few bars the composer indicates the speed the conductor ought to be at.  Prétre made these checks. What a difference this makes! It’s another opera! Villaume’s sloppy conducting swamps and drags the Bizet score. The song is not indicated to be sung by Carmen, though it often is, as it was in this production.

Rome perform the version with the added recitatives first heard in Vienna and not written by Bizet.  This, it seems to me is the best version for non French audiences.  The original had substantial spoken dialogue which is how the opera is still performed in France. And also at La Scala.  When Olga Borodina arrived there and was informed of this she said, Not with me, folks and got back on the plane to St Petersburg.

The American baritone, Kyle Ketelsen, is handsome and gallant of movement as Escamillo but his singing sounds more like gargling with a nasty, backward-swallowing sound.

Dmytro Popov gave a distinguished account of Don José’s lyricism and a moving Flower Song which brought the ovation of the evening.

Eleanora Buratto sounded nervous as Micaela in the first act but she warmed up to a rich, sustained sound in her third act aria.  All the singers suffered from Villaume’s misguided tempi.

Emilio Sagi’s staging was a co-production with the Santiago Opera.  It was dull, dull, dull.  Does Chile have an electricity problem?  Most of the performance was in the dark.  True enough that there are dark themes in Carmen.  Doom and death play their part.  But there are sunny scenes too.  These alas were sadly ignored .

Jack Buckley


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