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Don Roberto

Covent Garden
10/03/2009 -  & October 6, 10, 13, 21*, 24
Georges Bizet: Carmen
Elina Garanca (Carmen), Roberto Alagna (Don José), Lipin Zhang (Micaela), Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Escamillo), Changham Lim (Morales), Henry Waddington (Zuniga), Eri Nakamura (Frasquita), Louise Innes (Mercedes), Adrian Clarke (Le Dancaïre), Vincent Ordonneau (Remendado)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Bertrand de Billy (direction)
Francesca Zambello (production)

R. Alagna & E. Garanca (© Catherine Ashmore)

Mérimée and Bizet’s genius was to both be able to describe in words and then in music the tragic transformation of Don José from a simple mother-obedient, law-following soldier to a jealousy driven murderer. It is a measure of Roberto Alagna’s vocal and acting performance to make so credible a metamorphosis. His José, at the beginning, is passive and rigid. In the second act, he lets himself be manipulated by Carmen, preparing the stage for the transition in act 3 where jealousy starts overcoming him and the finale where passion makes him loose the last drop of self-respect that remained in him. Vocally, Alagna is as good as one can recall hearing him. His is elegant, ardent, and passionate and blends very well in the ensembles. He definitely seems to like London where he has often performed and London definitely likes him.

Opposite Alagna was Elina Garanca who can safely be called the Carmen of our time. Her diction is clear and secure, her projection, tone and phrasing should be studied in conservatories and she is at ease in all aspects of the work from the seductive Séguedille to the dramatic and demanding closing pages. On top, she dances convincingly, moves well and has movie star looks. There must be 100’s of mezzos worldwide who must feel that the God of singers is really unfair to them.

Both Micaela and Escamillo had no chance in front of these twos. Lipin Zhang’s tendency to force high notes damaged her phrasing whereas Ildebrando D’Arcangelo lost the bullfight versus French vowels. Taking great care of secondary roles has always been a trademark of Covent Garden and this performance was no exception (and England is the only place which gets Remendando’s jokes on its elegant countrymen.)

Not a second was wasted under Bertrand de Billy’s baton. This was a Carmen not in a rush but in a hurry. His swift tempi worked well in the Quintet but were taxing to some players in more than one place. Brass was dangerously off-key at the beginning of the overture and the chorus tended to be under pressure in big ensembles. Gallic elegance was nonetheless present whenever the conductor relaxed his tempi. The children’s chorus was very solid and had obviously worked really hard to produce genuine French accents.

With so much to be admired, the performance had one fundamental flaw. Production was unimaginative and uninvolving. Too many extras, too many dancers, too many children, too many animals … All of these were ultimately distracting and offered little insight. There was nothing wrong with Francesca Zambello’s comfortable production but, far worse, there was nothing right. Once again, let us not forget that Carmen is not only a showpiece and a crowd-pleaser, it is above all a masterwork of subtlety and psychology.

Antoine Leboyer



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