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Teatro di San Carlo

Margaine as Carmen at the San Carlo
© Luciano Romano/Teatro di San Carlo

UNLIKE FILM DIRECTORS, who usually start out as cinephiles, relatively few of today’s opera directors seem to take serious interest in the work of their predecessors. Daniele Finzi Pasca’s new production of Carmen at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples—the first Italian city to stage Bizet’s opera, with Célestine Galli-Marié in the title role, in 1879—showed little sign of his having learned from the errors and achievements of the past. The tricky crowd scenes in Act I—in which the children’s chorus lacked any sense of motivation and the cigarières’ abstention from smoking deprived their song of its sensual allure—proved deadening in their neutrality. And the stage studded with electric lights for Acts I and IV—in which the set designer, Hugo Gargiulo, aimed to create a parallel between Andalusian fiestas and popular celebrations in Naples—often simply laid bare the irrelevance of the collective movement, including Maria Bonzanigo’s choreography, as well as the awkward gestures of Andeka Gorrotxategi’s vocally constricted Don José. 

The electric illuminations served the very useful purpose of making the audience fully aware of the undemonstrative ease with which Clémentine Margaine’s Carmen dominated the stage on December 22. This young French mezzo-soprano has real charisma and (unlike her José) made expressive use of Giovanna Buzzi’s costumes. Margaine’s gestures differed little outwardly from those of many Carmens of the past, but the perfection of her timing, the teasing precision of every glance, invested those gestures with renewed energy, combining irony and sensuality in a manner that is typically French: there was never any vulgar posturing from this Gypsy. One suspects that her portrayal would be equally satisfying if seen and heard from the gallery or from the first row of the stalls; her mezzo-soprano is all-of-a-piece and freely produced, but sufficiently distinctive in coloring for every teasing nuance of the text to be savored—with a strikingly free play of portamentos in the habanera and a Gypsy-like tang to her chest register.

Margaine’s savviest onstage partner was Lithuanian baritone Kostas Smoriginas, who has the vocal and physical self-confidence required for Escamillo, although his voice, despite its smoothness in legato, is more pressurized than Margaine’s. Margaine also had lively support from Sandra Pastrana’s Frasquita, Annunziata Vestri’s Mercédès, Fabio Previati’s Dancaïre, Carlo Bosi’s Remendado and Gianfranco Montresor’s Zuniga—although these comprimario artists were less than ideally idiomatic in the snatches of spoken dialogue. Jessica Nuccio’s Micaela proved wholly praiseworthy in her touching simplicity of gesture and phrasing. The presence of Jacques Delacôte, a French conductor of long experience, added more savor and theatrical cohesion to a performance that proved totally absorbing every time Margaine moved center stage. Delacôte was more focused than Zubin Mehta, who led the televised first night of the production on December 13.  —Stephen Hastings 

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