Familiarity breeds contempt, the proverb tells us. In the case of Bizet's Carmen, it’s not so much contempt as intolerance: the music is so accessible, the melodies are so often heard and the opera so often performed that to succeed, a production must either be perfectly executed or furnished with something special to lift the interest. The latest revival of Francesca Zambello’s production at Covent Garden is neither of those things – attractive and generally competent though it is.
Alexander Vinogradov has a pleasant, smooth basso cantante voice which resulted in a rather smooth, urbane Escamillo. I like the voice, but I’m not convinced that he’s right for the part: the tessitura is right at the top of his range, and I prefer an Escamillo to be a bit rougher: the man is a bullfighter capable of holding his own in a knife fight, not an aristocrat.
Just like the singing, the orchestral performance was mixed. Bertrand de Billy kept things moving nicely and strings and woodwind gave good, precise performances: the prelude to Act III, when they’re playing on their own, was the orchestral highlight of the evening. But there were simply too many errors and hesitancies in brass and percussion: this is a score where anything less than immaculate timing of triangle or tambourine notes can throw the whole flow of the music. The result was an orchestral performance that was adequate without ever touching greatness.
For anyone seeing Carmen for the first time, this production will have been a more than satisfactory evening. Old hands hoping to see something extra will find it in Hymel and Car, but not elsewhere.
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