Attending a performance of a well-known opera such as Carmen at Vienna State Opera early in the season is akin to going to a tourist attraction. Many serious opera lovers and subscribers seem to stay away or extend their summer holidays. The house was filled with tourists snapping photos and selfies, and families with young children. The opera is a crowd-pleaser with many familiar melodies, although Bizet’s score is quite innovative and sophisticated. Franco Zeffirelli’s realistic production has seen better days and it is time for a new one. Nevertheless, we are still in Vienna. Even with an outdated production and somewhat uneven cast, it was an exciting evening that reminded us of the essence of opera as a moving experience very much alive and relevant today.

Zeffirelli certainly knew how to manage the crowd scenes that are ubiquitous in Carmen. He created a raked stage with elevated steps and platforms in the back where many of the chorus members were placed in the town square of Act I. In Act II's tavern, the chorus was again placed high up on the back wall with steps, used by Escamillo and his entourage, as well as Don José and others to enter and exit. The crowd placement was reversed in the last scene as the men and women in their finery were at the front of the stage to greet the bullfighters entering the stadium via an elevated path in the back. The arrangement deftly highlighted the solo singers amid the crowd. The only negative was the mountain hideout scene in Act III, with scrim and dark lighting obscuring the figures on stage, making it hard to discern faces.

Philippe Auguin conducted with urgency mixed with extreme attention to details. Melodies that are often cut from other performances were included, perhaps to show off the beauty of the Vienna State Opera’s fine strings. The orchestra indeed was on excellent form, and their expert playing of the familiar score brought out hidden gems that would not be easily differentiated if performed by another orchestra. In the final duet of Carmen and José that ends with Jose’s murder of Carmen, the orchestra played with such power, grace and complexity that I felt as though I was witnessing Verdi’s most exciting confrontation scenes.

In the title role, Elena Maximova had been announced as under the weather. However, after a tentative start, she quickly gained strength to complete the performance with distinction. Her voice not only had a powerful top but also the necessary smoky darkness of the sensuous gypsy. Combined with an excellent vocal technique and acting ability, she created a complete picture of a fickle but complex woman who retained a sense of sympathy for José until close to the end. 

Making house debut, Cristina Pasaroiu was a lovely Micaëla. Her slim figure fit the role of a naive country girl, standing out among the townsfolk of Seville. Her clear soprano poured out like a string of pearls to weave the melodies of her arias of devotion and longing. Another house debut, Brandon Jovanovich as Don José, was a qualified success. His muscular tenor often failed to project above the orchestra, especially in the middle of the range, although his high notes were powerful and virile. Clemens Unterreiner’s Escamillo made up for a lack of a strong low register with soaring high notes, weakness of many an Escamillo. He also cut a dashing and flamboyant figure on stage to convince us of Carmen’s attraction to this troubadour.

The Chorus of the Vienna State Opera did themselves proud, singing with unison, beauty and clarity while dealing with complex blocking on stage. A special mention should be made of the contributions made by Hila Fahima’s Frasquita and Ilseyar Khayrullova’s Mercédès, singing with zest and beauty. The Act II quintet, with the three women joined by Joseph Dennis’ Remendado and Mihail Dogotari’s Dancaïre, was one of the musical highlights of the evening; I have seldom heard the difficult passages negotiated so skillfully and excitingly by the singers.

In the final scene, Maximova and Jovanovich were on fire, singing the music full of edginess and darkness with passion and abandon, while moving around the stage in their death fight. Together with the orchestra joining in as another party in the fight to death, the audience, jaded veterans and jet-lagged tourists alike, were on the edge of their seats. Kudos to the maestro, the orchestra and, of course, the singers for showing that opera can be both art and entertainment.