Is that a flagstaff in your hand or are you just pleased to see me?
This is my least favourite opera but I loved this very German take on Carmen that, visually, was very reminiscent of Cabaret. In the title role, Russian mezzo Marina Domashenko has a voice like warm treacle and a look that can kill, although, admittedly, it is not a very Spanish look.
My main problems with this opera are the characters of Don José and Micaela. Don José is usually a wimp and Michaela is a maudlin goody-goody. Not in this production. Adriane Queiroz is a very spirited Micaela who clearly sees Carmen as a rival for Don José's affection. Don José himself is excellently sung by Rolando Villazon. More to the point, this Don is no wimp. As played by Villazon, he is a violent and deranged man right from the start. His killing of Carmen is not the isolated act of a jealous lover, he precedes it by stabbing his Captain in Act II and by shooting Michaela in Act lll. I also enjoyed Alexander Vinogradov's performance as Escamillo. Vinogradov is a dapper, intelligent bullfighter, an interesting change from the usual dull, swaggering portrayal.
The body count in this production is higher than usual. Apart from the two extracurricular deaths already mentioned, we see a severely gored Escamillo being carried off at the end. Actually his mind was probably not on his work. When we see him in silhouette with Carmen before the bullfight he is carrying a flagstaff in front of him in such a way that makes him appear very pleased to see her. Also the production begins and ends with Don José's execution by firing squad, so that the entire opera becomes a flashback as he is dying. I have seen that idea several times in operas recently, this year at Glyndebourne's Macbeth, for example. It is becoming a bit of an operatic cliché but it works well enough in this production.
Daniel Barenboim, looking miserable, conducts from an almost horizontal position. I don't know if he was suffering from back trouble at the time. Anyway, there is nothing laid-back about his conducting and he drives the orchestra along thrillingly to make this the best Carmen I have heard musically and the most intriguing I have seen visually.
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