This page was last updated on: October 9, 2009


Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, October 2009
Liping Zhang, Roberto Alagna, and Elina Garanca
Carmen, Royal Opera House, London, October 2009
Phtoto © Catherine Ashmore

          Gypsy stunner wows soldier, The Financial Times, 6  October 2009
          Carmen at Covent Garden, The Times, 5 October 2009
Gypsy stunner wows soldier
Richard Fairman, The Financial Times, 6  October 2009

Packets of crisps, chocolate bars and sandwiches in plastic containers at the bar gave notice that this was not a normal opening night at the Royal Opera House. For the second time, a Paul Hamlyn First Night, sponsored by the Helen Hamlyn Trust, was making all the seats available to readers of the Sun newspaper for a top price of £30.

Amusingly, a search for "Carmen" on the Sun's website mostly brings up gossipy items about the glamour model Carmen Electra, rather than the Royal Opera, but then that is not so far from what Bizet's opera is about. At its heart is a symbol of irresistible female sexuality - no sexual allure in the title role, no performance worth seeing.

In this second revival of Francesca Zambello's lifeless 2006 production, the role of Carmen is taken by Elina Garanca, the young Latvian mezzo and fast-rising operatic star. For physical beauty she could give any tabloid model a run for her money. When other Carmens lift their skirts to taunt the soldiers, they tend to be embarrassing, but Garanca has the feminine magnetism to bring it off. She also possesses a gloriously full mezzo voice, but beyond that her Carmen remains one-dimensional - a glamorous pin-up rather than the complex genuine article.

The grit of the drama is supplied by Roberto Alagna's harrowing Don José. In vocal terms, there is altogether too much grit these days, especially when his singing is meant to be honeyed and seductive, but he charts Don José's decline from upright soldier to broken desperado unflinchingly. Liping Zhang is the mellifluous Micaëla, though she makes little of the words. As Escamillo, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo despatches the toreador's song with bravado but not much volume.

The smaller roles are not notably well taken, Eri Nakamura's vivacious Frasquita and Adrian Clarke's characterful Le Dancaïre apart. Bertrand de Billy, the conductor, brings a light French touch and some pace to bear down in the pit. Sun readers will be welcome back if they want to try another revival of Carmen which gets deeper below the skin of the opera - not least given the price of a plate of sandwiches on all the other nights of the year.

Carmen at Covent Garden
Richard Morrison, The Times, 5 October 2009

Gordon Brown may have blown it, but the Royal Opera House still has The Sun on its side. After last year's experiment Covent Garden was again packed with that newspaper's readers on Saturday. I can't tell you how many will be voting Tory, but to judge from the gasps when Don José's dagger plunged into Carmen, and the cheers at the finish, a lot of these first-timers will be voting for more opera  although they are in for a shock if they think that top-price seats at the Royal Opera always cost £30.

They certainly had their money's worth of vocal and visual thrills here, even if Francesca Zambello's conventional staging (first seen in 2006) doesn't exactly offer radical new insights into Bizet's femme fatale. You could cast several productions of Oliver! from the ranks of grinning urchins. Then there are the knicker-flashing flamenco dancers, macho toreadors, muscley matadors, prancing picadors and assorted who-knows-whatadors. It's a pity that Tommy Steele's little white bull doesn't make the parade, but the assembled livestock does include several chickens, a donkey and a black stallion on which Escamillo enters. He's a good actor, too. The horse, I mean.

It says much for Elina Garanca's Carmen that, even when competing with this menagerie, she dominates every scene. It helps that the young Latvian looks stunning. Here's one Carmen whose ability to reduce strong men to jelly is totally credible. But she also commands a voice that's rich and vibrant from lowest note to highest, and capable of hurling out a contemptuous challenge with blazing power. What she lacks is a streak of earthy wildness. She bumps and grinds her Habanera sexily enough, but you never quite feel that there's a tiger inside this cool, controlled and rather modern miss.

I liked Roberto Alagna's Don José, though. It's fashionable now to play the susceptible corporal as a jealous psychopath, unable to control his anger. Alagna, more interestingly, portrays him as a besotted weakling, gradually but comprehensively broken by Carmen. Although his voice sometimes sounds wayward, there's no denying the tremendous anguish in his singing.

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo swaggers effectively enough as Escamillo, though his Toreador's Song doesn't pack much punch; perhaps the horse should have sung it. But there's a lovely, silver-toned Micaëla from Liping Zhang and a delightful Frasquita and Mercédès from Eri Nakamura and Louise Innes. Bertrand de Billy's conducting is mixed  searing orchestral nuances, limp chorus singing  and some ensembles need tightening.