• DVD Review: Carmen (1991, Covent Garden)

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    1991, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

    (Maria Ewing, Luis Lima, Gino Quilico, Leontina Vaduva; Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, cond. Zubin Mehta)

    (dir. Nuria Espert; video dir. Barrie Gavin)


    This Carmen may not quite be definitive, but it’s still been very popular over the years and justly so. The rough tan brick sets are handsome and the costumes strike a good balance between appealing color and working-class realism. Apart from some showy flamenco dancing in Act II, this is very much a Carmen driven by its plot and its characters, not by exoticism or spectacle. The staging by Spanish actress Nuria Espert is, apart from a few cluttered crowd scenes, lively and intelligent throughout. The production is traditional, yet with several inventive touches: Don José doesn’t stab Carmen with a knife in the end, but impales her with a hook from the bullring, whether for symbolism or just for startling, visceral effect I don’t know. But what really make this performance stand out in the catalogue are the lead singers’ performances, especially their acting.


    Maria Ewing, in her third filmed Carmen, is still as seductive as ever. Apart from a tendency to slide and a limited upper register, her dusky voice is the ideal sultry instrument, and her characterization is vibrant. Gone is the nonchalant, mysterious Carmen she portrayed at Glyndebourne in 1985, replaced by a much more accessible heroine: dignified yet flirtatious, fun loving and truly enraptured by José for at least a moment. Her José, Luis Lima, sings with a rich, solid spinto tenor and offers a stellar portrayal of a naïve and vulnerable young soldier who slowly changes into a vicious killer. The finale, in which he brutally manhandles Carmen while sobbing in a mixture of rage and anguish, is classic catharsis, creating both fear and pity. Leontina Vaduva’s Micaela is likewise excellent, with a sweet, delicate soprano and a charming, tender characterization. Gino Quilico’s Escamillo is handsome, well sung and believable, though he lacks the sheer vocal richness and flamboyance of others. Zubin Mehta does a fine job of conducting, using the Oeser edition but with the standard cuts to both music and dialogue. Camerawork, picture and sound quality are first-rate, though I don’t care for the English subtitles: too much paraphrasing and profanity. (Is “What the hell are you doing here?” really the best way to translate “Malheureuse! Que viens-tu faire ici?”)


    While not perfect, this Carmen still has plenty of charms and compelling drama to offer, and is high on my list of recommendations.


    Production Clip: The Act II Prelude and Gypsy Song



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