BIZET: Carmen
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BIZET: Carmen

DVD Button Semenchuk, Lungu, Micarelli, Melis; Ventre, Álvarez, Antognetti, Longhi, Verna, Choi; Arena di Verona Orchestra and Chorus, Nánási. Production: Zeffirelli. BelAir Classiques BAC 121 (DVD), BAC 421 (Blu-ray), 159 mins., subtitles

Recordings Carmen Cover 216

IF YOU'RE LOOKING FOR A GOOD Carmen on video, one with strong musical and dramatic values, keep a safe distance from this one. I’m fond of old-fashioned stagings when they’re delivered with old-fashioned belief, but here the pomp and pageantry outweigh the needs of Bizet and his durable opera. Anyone who saw Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 production at the Met—which had its premiere aptly on Halloween—will know what to expect: the director’s own hyperrealistic sets (thrice their Met size, as befit the massive Arena di Verona); Anna Anni’s panoply of colorful costumery; the gratuitous dancers; the horses. (Micaela rides in on one in Act I, José and Carmen follow suit in Act III.)  The New York version fielded some good casts over the years, who managed to break through the alienating opulence to create something raw and real. No such luck here. Everyone goes through the motions, but even with the cameras rolling, the stakes don’t seem very high. With the bulk of the audience a couple of city blocks away, there’s not much incentive for subtlety or style; instead, it’s big, bigger, biggest—with the odd effect that the opera itself emerges diminished. 

This Carmen lays its cards firmly on the table at the start: the prelude becomes a busy dance number; the dragoons watch a small town’s worth of variegated Sevillians come and go; the street urchins are impeccably dressed and neat as pins, and behave impeccably, too—but the slutty cigarette girls behave as operatic cigarette girls have always behaved. Carmen and José look like they’d be right at home on a TV sitcom—cousins, perhaps, of CBS’s Mike and Molly.  

As Cousin Carmen, Ekaterina Semenchuk is a basically jolly ol’ gal who just wants to have fun. Semenchuk—such a good Amneris on Warner’s new Aida—has a fine, smooth, dark Slavic mezzo, and sings well, even with some nuance; but hers isn’t a very compelling iteration of the role. As Cousin Joe, Carlo Ventre bawls and bellows in unpliant tones and projects all the menace of a suburban mailman. Irina Lungu (like Semenchuk, unflatteringly bewigged) is a good, strong Micaela, with some welcome mettle in her manner and some not unwelcome metal in her tone. Carlos Álvarez, as Escamillo, is no matinee idol, but he sings his couplets better than most Bizet toreros and is, for what it’s worth, the cast’s lone Spaniard; no one with ears would mistake any of them for French. (Luckily, it’s the Guiraud edition, with a few spoken lines tossed in before the Séguedille.) Conductor Henrik Nánási, the music director of Berlin’s Komische Oper, where meticulously prepared Regietheater rules, must have wondered just what he’d gotten into here; still, he and the orchestra do their bests.  

That said, for all its demerits, I rather enjoyed this DVD. It’s laden with atmospheric shots of the Verona Arena, where I’ve never been, and seems to provide a fair idea of what an average summer night there is like. Sit back, and if you’re not expecting Bizet à la mode, you’ll get a splashy show roughly recognizable as Carmen—Patrick Dillon 

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