Dramatic grasp and drive from Shokhakimov’s concert performance of Carmen in Strasbourg

FranceFrance Bizet, Carmen (concert performance): Soloists, Maïtrise de l’Opéra National du Rhin, Chorus of the Opéra National du Rhin, Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg / Aziz Shokhakimov (conductor). Salle Érasme, Palais de la Musique et des Congrès, Strasbourg, 4.4.2023. (CC)

Aziz Shokhakimov © Nicolas Roses

Carmen – Elena Maximova
Don José – Michael Spyres
Micaëla – Elsa Dreisig
Escamillo – Alexandre Duhamel
Frasquita – Florie Valquette
Mercédès – Adèle Charvet
Moralès – Thomas Dolié
Zuniga – Nicolas Courjal
Le Dancaire – Philippe Estèphe
Le Remendado – Cyrille Dubois

This was a remarkable performance (the first of two) of Bizet’s Carmen – all the more impressive given the changes that preceded it. It was originally intended for John Nelson to conduct – the title role was to have been taken by Joyce DiDonato, singing her first ever Carmen. Sadly, Nelson was rather ill, and withdrew – subsequently, DiDonato, too, stepped back, on the grounds she was only doing it to work with Nelson.

Step forward in the first instance Aziz Shokhakimov, the current Principal Conductor at Strasbourg (he has just had his contract extended, and they are lucky to have him) and, in the second, mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova, an incredibly experienced Carmen.

The cast included a clutch of perfectly chosen stars. Michael Spyres, listed as ‘baritenor’, can seemingly do no wrong at the moment; Elsa Dreisig, another name on everybody’s lips right now, was Micaëla while the stunning Florie Valiquette stepped out of the early music repertoire I so associate her with at Versailles to French Romantic opéra with marked success. Add to that Alexandre Duhamel as Escamillo and the luxury casting of Cyrille Dubois as the Remendado, and things looked pretty bright.

And so it was, but for all the starry singers it was Shokhakimov’s Strasbourg orchestra that was the true star. Shokhakimov is detailed in his rehearsals; and until something is right, his way, he won’t let go. And how it showed in the discipline of the string section and the tenderness of the wind soloists. Only one moment of slightly shoddy ensemble – a trumpet in the early children’s chorus – stood out, but then again not even Claudio Abbado in his classic DG recording got that bit fully right, and he had multiple goes in a studio.

But there was more, in that it was clear that Shokhakimov sees Carmen as a grand canvas and is able to place each moment within that grander scheme. This was about as far from a ‘wait for the famous bits’ than one could get. Bizet’s magnificent score emerged as a cogent, magnificent edifice, towering over, for example, Les pêcheurs de perles (close though that is to my heart; let’s not forget Bizet wrote some nine operas, including La jolie fille de Perth and the little-known and delightful Le docteur Miracle (resurrected at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama fairly recently in 2021 and in combination with Pauline Viardot’s fabulous Cendrillon).

Interesting to see Shokhakimov so spatially mobile – by which I mean he was not averse from stepping down from his podium and meeting the children’s chorus at their level, and of moving back from the podium so all singers, placed in a line at the front, could see him in the final act. And within this edifice he co-created with Bizet, the sheer local-level excitement he could generate was remarkable – perhaps the finest example of this was the orchestra’s explosion of life after ‘Les tringles des sistres tintaient’ at the opening of the second act (Carmen, Mercédès, Frasquita) His technique is mesmeric – while his right hand baton technique is perfect, for expression he sometimes cedes to a more expressive left-hand which will mould and shape a lyrical phrase.

Concert performance of Carmen © Nicolas Roses

Elena Maximova is known for her Carmen – it is a role she regularly returns to, and has performed at La Scala, and the Vienna and Bavarian State Operas, and at Covent Garden –  and there is no doubting her complete technical command here. And yet, it all felt a little too lived in. There were moments of great character (‘Bel officier’ in the second act, partnered perfectly by Shokhakimov), but she only really hit full immersion and therefore form in the fourth and final act. In conversation before the performance, Shokhakimov told me that she has a beautiful voice, but of course ‘it was a risk to bring a mezzo who is not French. But honestly speaking, I listened to a lot of French singers, and I couldn’t be fully satisfied with what I heard, This is a very special opera for me, and I really demand from the singers … interesting colours. We worked with Elena to improve her French, and some moments …’

The advantage of having a ‘baritone and tenor’ as Don José is the luxury of enjoying all the excitement of the high-lying lines (delivered with real full tone) and having the lower lines also at full strength, without any sense of strain or weakness; it also allows for the most free-flowing of legatos. Luxury feels the right word – Spyres has it all, from range to perfect attunement to the French soundworld (I remember his Berlioz Nuits d’été with John Nelson). His ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ (the so-called Flower Song) in the second act was just beautiful; but how his cries of ‘Ah! Carmen! ma Carmen adorée!’ shot straight through to the heart. Shokhakimov was laudatory about Spyres before the performance, too: ‘He has power in his voice but at the same time he has tenderness which is absolutely amazing, and so fits this role – when he goes to the high B flat written diminuendo pianissimo, he does it so well’. He did, too.

Elsa Dreisig fully justified the worldwide interest in her singing, giving a Micaëla who emerged as a fully rounded character, and delivering the part with stunning presence. Hearing her live, it is amazing just how free her voice is – one feels she could do anything. Florie Valiquette positively excelled as Frasquita, throwing herself into the role; her partner in crime, the mezzo Adèle Charvet as Mercédès, was the perfect foil, their voices ideally matched.

Only the Escamillo, Alexandre Duhamel, seemed to have a slightly variable night, with a lot of air around his voice in the first two acts and some lessening of body in the upper reaches of his voice; he found form later in the opera. Bass Nicolas Courjal was a superb Zuniga – not a name I knew too well before, but one I will look out for in the future; baritone Thomas Dolié was a fine Morales.

Solo contributions from the orchestra were uniformly excellent. The flute and harp clearly play a large part in this opera (beautifully shaped at the opening of the third act, but there is also much for the leader’s solo violin to do). Choruses, both young and a maybe a little less young, were both splendid, the Chœur de l’Opéra du Rhin raised spectacularly up at the back and in beautiful, dynamic voice; the Maîtrise, impeccably drilled and one of the finest children’s choirs I have heard anywhere, to the conductor’s left.

As a concert performance (just one prop, a single flower!), this was remarkable in its dramatic grasp and drive. A real triumph for the conductor and his Strasbourg forces – small wonder Shokhakimov’s tenure has been extended.

Colin Clarke

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