A revival of Daniele Finzi Pasca's 2015 staging of Carmen opened the San Carlo Opera Festival, the summer programme's fourth edition in Naples. When it premiered, I welcomed the production for its musical virtues, while the response from the audience was not that favourable towards Finzi Pasca's direction. Again, last night, all performers but the director were warmly applauded.

Stefano Secco (Don José) e Clémentine Margaine (Carmen) © Luciano Romano
Stefano Secco (Don José) e Clémentine Margaine (Carmen)
© Luciano Romano

The staging highlights Carmen’s rebellious traits more than her sensual exoticism. Even though it is set in Spain and features exotic themes and motifs from gypsy folklore, Carmen's story is deeply French. Bizet conceived it as a typical opéra comique, but after the failure of the première in Paris, and following the death of the composer, his friend Ernest Guiraud replaced the spoken dialogues with "Italian recitatives", transforming Carmen into a Grand Opéra, a more serious genre.

From Spanish folklore Bizet drew rhythms and motifs of exotic colour, such as the famous habanera "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle", or the seguidilla "Près des remparts de Séville".  Bizet explicitly stated that he intended not to mimic Spanish music, but to capture its spirit, in order to give more realism to the story and a more passionate drive to the action of the characters. What he was most intrigued by was the sharp contrast of passionate love and violence. Carmen wants to be the maker of her own destiny, to affirm her independence and her rejection of social conventions up to extreme consequences.

The dominant theme of the work is seduction, to which the name itself of the woman refers by etymological consonance: in Latin a "carmen" is a song, a lyric poem, but it also means enchantment; the French term "charme" also originates from the same word. These semantic echoes accentuate more and more the ambiguous, almost spellbinding capacity of seduction of the protagonist.

Clémentine Margaine (Carmen) © Luciano Romano
Clémentine Margaine (Carmen)
© Luciano Romano

In his score, Bizet does not go deep into the soul of the characters, but describes their stories with a new musical language, filled with warm sensuality and moving lyricism (as in Don Jose’s air “La fleur que tu m'avais jetée", or in Micaela’s “Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante”).

French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine, did a good job as a singing actress, more than Maria José Montiel in 2015, as she was charming. Her voice was rich along its entire range, from an intense higher to a deep lower register, and full and warm in the middle. Both in the habanera and in the seguidilla, Margaine entangled poor Don José with a seductive mixture of voice and gestures.

Stefano Secco's Don José was more imposing than Brian Jagde's two years ago, with a sound upper register supporting him even in the most intimate moments, as in the Flower Song. Also, he was good in managing the pianissimos in his duet with Micaëla.

Erwin Schrott (Escamillo) © Luciano Romano
Erwin Schrott (Escamillo)
© Luciano Romano

Erwin Schrott was excellent in making Escamillo's bold temperament emerge, both musically and theatrically. Schrott is among the more expressive bass-baritones nowadays, and he gave this role a robust interpretation.

Jessica Nuccio was a careful Micaëla, less round and full than Eleonora Buratto in the 2015, but more delicate. She underlined the childish aspect of the character, with a tender voice and a poignant countenance.

Sandra Pastrana and Giuseppina Bridelli again proved again to be standouts as Mercédès and Frasquita, as did Fabio Previati (Le Dancaïre), Carlo Bosi (Le Remendado).

The San Carlo's new music director Jurai Valĉuha led the orchestra with a firm yet light hand when needed. He was good at mixing quick, lively tempos with slow, ominous atmospheres. The rich colours of Bizet's score were well exploited by the San Carlo’s excellent acoustics. Marco Faelli’s chorus sang and acted well and was well complemented by a delightful children's chorus, directed by Stefania Rinaldi. 

***11