A Brilliantly Staged and Marvellously Played Carmen in Vienna

AustriaAustria Bizet: Carmen, Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Wiener Staatsoper, Philippe Auguin (conductor), Staatsoper, Vienna, 6.9.2016. (JMI)

Elena Maximova (Carmen) © Michael Pöhn

Carmen – Elena Maximova
Don Jose – Brandon Jovanovich
Micaela – Cristina Pasaroiu
Escamillo – Clemens Unterreiner
Frasquita – Hila Fahima
Mercedes – Ilseyar Khayrullova
Zuniga – Alexandru Moisiuc
Morales – Orhan Yildiz
Remendado – Joseph Dennis
Dancaïre – Mihail Dogotari

Direction – Franco Zeffirelli
Sets – Franco Zeffirelli
Costumes – Leo Bei
Choreography – Rafael de Córdova

I found this performance of Carmen to be rather uneven. The production itself is beautiful, something that can be rare today in opera, and the music was remarkable. However, the cast was not terribly impressive.

The sets by the famous Franco Zeffirelli are almost 40 years old and make one nostalgic. This is a big production, realistic, faithful to the libretto and of great beauty – it’s the kind of staging that provokes applause at the Metropolitan as the curtain opens. Act I is particularly noteworthy: it takes full advantage of the stage’s depth and sets us in a sunny square of an unmistakable Seville, with awnings that are still used as protection from the sun in the old town. Lilas Pastias’ Tavern is also spectacular, with a huge staircase that Escamillo descends when he arrives. The third act, very dark and with some rocks on the sides of the stage, was less brilliant. In the last act we’re back again in the sunlight, in a large space behind the bullring. Zeffirelli’s classic set design has no drawback other than requiring two breaks for the laborious scene changes.

The music was entrusted to Philippe Auguin, currently music director of the Washington National Opera. His reading was quite exceptional, with great mastery of the score and no loss of tension throughout the entire opera. Once again we could enjoy the great sound of the Staatsoper Orchestra, which is always a real treat. The chorus also gave a fine performance.

Russian mezzo soprano Elena Maximova is very familiar with the character of Carmen, a role that she has sung regularly for the past ten years in the top opera houses. She is an outstanding and appealing performer, and she even plays the castanets to accompany her dancing. Her voice is suited to the part but rather dark, and there’s a certain monotony in her singing. She’s a solid Carmen if not an exceptional one.

Don Jose was sung by American tenor Brandon Jovanovich. I was curious to see him again, as I had not heard him on stage since he performed Don José at Barcelona’s Liceu some six years ago. He had not convinced me then, but in recent years he has developed an important career. However, his performance here confirmed my previous impression. His Don José is more or less suited for the drama of the last two acts but of very little interest in the duet with Micaela or the ‘Flower Song’, which was crowned with a high B that sounded mostly falsetto.

Romanian soprano Cristina Pasaroiu replaced Genia Kühmeier as Micaela, and she was rather disappointing, although I appear to have been the only one at the Staatsoper who felt this. She’s a light soprano with a reduced middle range and empty at the bottom, but she has sung roles such as Adriana Lecouvreur, Rachel in La Juive and even Valentine in Les Huguenots.

Clemens Unterreiner is part of the Staatsoper’s ensemble and generally covers secondary parts. His Escamillo did not convince me, particularly in the ‘Toreador Song’ which he had to sing from well back on stage.

In the secondary roles soprano Hila Fahima was a light-voiced Frasquita, but she carried easily through the house. Mezzo Ilseyar Khayrullova in the part of Mercedes left a good impression. The other smugglers, interpreted by tenor Joseph Dennis (Remendado) and Mihail Dogotari (Dancairo), were correct. Alexandru Moisiuc offered an attractive voice in the part of Zuniga, while Orhan Yildiz was a pretty rough Morales.

The Staatsoper was fully sold out, and the audience gave a warm reception to all the artists. The biggest applause went to Philippe Auguin and Cristina Pasaroiu.

José M. Irurzun

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