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Andrew Quint
Fanfare, May 2009

David McVicar, the director of this Glyndebourne Carmen, tells us in an extra feature that Bizet’s masterwork “is the first musical…it’s hit number after hit number after hit number.” Indeed, there’s the feel of a Broadway or West End show—the sets, the dancing, the fighting and, especially, the costumes. Fortunately, with the dynamic and sensitive Philippe Jordan in the pit, the music isn’t short-changed. But there’s no question that this rendering of the World’s Best-Known Opera is meant to be entertaining, and it certainly is.

With a long-running Broadway show, it’s not unusual for the producers to drop a “name” performer into a lead role that he or she isn’t quite right for to keep up box office receipts. That’s not the motivation here, of course, but some will find Anne Sofie von Otter not ideally suited to represent Bizet’s headstrong and darkly sensual heroine. Von Otter is a great singer and can do anything she wants to do vocally—listen to the first act “Habanera,” for instance. But despite lots of writhing and allegedly erotic orange-eating and cigar-smoking, von Otter isn’t totally convincing as the ultimate temptress, occasionally looking more like Carol Burnett doing an impression of a diva doing Carmen. No question: von Otter is a terrific artist who, vocally, nails what the star of the show is all about. This is apparent when she massages the “Gypsy Song,” modulating her voice with a defiant and manipulative seductiveness. But this is a Carmen meant to be watched as well as heard, and the Swedish mezzo can’t do the Bad Girl thing as well as some lesser singers.

In terms of the other principals, Marcus Haddock’s Don José is satisfactory, even if his voice is lacking a bit in body and heft. José is a character of Wagnerian complexity and Haddock doesn’t reveal the full range of his internal conflict. Lisa Milne portrays an earnest and decent Micaëla with well-supported and appealingly contoured vocalism. As Escamillo, Laurent Naouri has the requisite rock-star swagger, yet his bullfighter is a more sympathetic character than usual He’s not simply a puffed-up, self-satisfied egomaniac but, rather, the sort of uncomplicated man’s man who undoubtedly makes José quite insecure. The various smaller roles are covered well.

The sound, Dolby Digital TrueHD for both stereo and surround, is outstanding, with the LPO’s contribution weighty and detailed. With multichannel, the trumpet calls in act I are convincingly offstage. The camerawork is expert and the high-definition picture offers the natural crispness we’re already taking for granted with Blu-ray, never more so than with the eye-popping final act. There are loads of extras, including the standard plot synopsis, commentary from the cast, conductor, and director, and small segments discussing the choreography, costumes, stage fighting, and Glyndebourne’s famed gardens. The booklet contains a new short story—actually more a kind of internal dialogue for Don José—by British novelist Jeanette Winterson.

There’s another Carmen available on Blu-ray, the first such operatic duplication in the new format that I’m aware of; it’s a Covent Garden production conducted by Antonio Pappano. That Decca version stars Anna Caterina Antonacci, who definitely embodies the leading lady’s carnality, and Jonas Kaufman, a more vocally compelling José than Haddock. But for pure entertainment, and to show off the Blu-ray format in all its glory, I’ll return to the Opus Arte every time.

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