Carmen is probably one of the few operas that even the unwashed masses can hum large segments, or at least a tune or two, from. When Tchaikovsky saw the opera shortly after it premiered at the Opera Comique in 1875, he predicted that within 10 years it would be the most popular opera in the world. While that prediction turned out to be largely correct, what Tchaikovsky couldn't have foreseen was the untimely death of Carmen's composer Georges Bizet shortly after the premiere, a premiere that met with less than radiant responses and which convinced Bizet he needed to rework the libretto to eliminate spoken interludes and instead compose more traditional recitatives. When Bizet died, that task was handed over to his friend Ernest Guiraud, whose more pedestrian work hindered Bizet's frankly flashier style. This 2002 Glyndebourne production restores the original version that Tchaikovsky saw and admired, and while it may be slightly disconcerting (no pun intended) to have spoken moments in opera, this wonderful production makes a stirring case for getting back to Bizet's original version once and for all.
Carmen pioneered the operatic trend of verismo, which might be likened to cinema verite--an attempt to depict realistic subjects in a less declamatory nature than is the norm in grand opera. Carmen the character is one of the most complex females in all of operatic repertoire, and not one who's all that likable when you get right down to it. A coquettish Gypsy with a fiery temper, a seductress out for herself and little else, Carmen has very little vulnerability or even a standard moral compass to which most audience members can relate. Carmen nonetheless remains one of the most visceral and mesmerizing figures in music theater, a bombshell who figuratively explodes all over the place, leaving the debris of at least one soul, her putative lover Don Jose, in the ensuing rubble. The redoubtable Anne Sofie von Otter tackles the role with all she has, and delivers a remarkably facile, and at times surprisingly gentle, interpretation, mixing a catlike sexuality with a ruthlessness that makes Carmen come alive in a remarkably mercurial performance. In fact her Act I "Habanera" is one of the most remarkably elastic versions of this venerable classic I've heard.
I initially had some qualms about conductor Philippe Jordan as he conducted the Overture, obviously only too aware that the camera was trained on him. His ictus is virtually nonexistent in the opening, as he seemed to be performing more than leading, but when you have an organization like the London Philharmonic playing something they've done a million times, maybe it's not all the necessary to have a conductor. My qualms were somewhat assuaged by the time Act I really got underway, as Jordan matched von Otter's rubato perfectly and delicately.
Von Otter is matched nicely by a vigorous Marcus Haddock as Don Jose, the army corporal doomed by his unrequited love for Carmen, and Laurent Naouri makes an appealingly rugged Escamillo, the bullfighter who appears well into Carmen and Jose's relationship to further complicate matters. There is some unusually fine choral singing throughout this warhorse, with special attention paid to dynamics, adding a nice layer of variety to music that is otherwise so familiar it can literally go in one ear and out the other without making much of an impact. The physical production is handsome, if not overwhelming, and camera coverage is always well-handled, with good alternation of close-ups and full proscenium shots.
Carmen paved the way for a new breed of opera. While it was a somewhat scandalous subject matter for 19th century audiences, the ravishing music of Bizet overcome initial resistance and proved that Tchaikovsky's hunch was correct. If Bizet's quasi-Spanish idiom is less convincing than he perhaps hoped it would be, he nonetheless created one of the most universally recognized and admired operatic scores, one that has trickled down from the operatic elite to the public at large, and that's no small achievement. This production of Carmen, under the sure handed direction of David McVicar, restores the opera to its original form in an exciting and well realized production that should interest all opera lovers.