The Royal Opera House, Muscat opened the 2019/20 season with the Teatro Colón Buenos Aires 2011 production of Bizet’s opera, “Carmen”. The opera about a seductive gypsy girl in southern Spain is almost a victim of its own success in contemporary times. It is the most frequently performed work in the repertoire and as such making a fresh impact with each production becomes ever harder. That decisive role fell to Teatro Colón’s Oscar winning Director, Set and Costume Designer, Gianni Quaranta who worked alongside Franco Zeffirelli for seventeen years. Quaranta aimed for an understated, subtle yet traditional interpretation of the drama through massive proportions: enormous set creations, careful attention to lighting and beautifully authentic wardrobe.
The whole performance of four Acts separated by three intervals lasted a whopping three hours and forty five minutes, largely to enable set changes. Each Act began with the iconic Bullring front which slid, sometimes squeakily, to reveal the impressive scenery within. In the production which opened on Wednesday evening to a packed house there was a cast of nine hundred performers, including thirty child and forty five Omani adult extras. This year’s revival included brilliant new choreography by the famous Spanish dance company, Antonio Gadès, in a wild and energetic flamenco diversion to Act II, the tavern scene of Lillas Pastia. Female dancers were dressed in flamboyant colourful costumes, swirling red shawls as they clicked their heels.
The show opened with the famous ‘Carmen Overture’ from the 70-strong Teatro Colón Orchestra in the pit, under the supervision of renowned Milanese maestro, Antonello Allemandi. The score is fiendishly difficult and taxing for any orchestra, especially for the brass section, with some very challenging, exposed passages. Extras set the tone for a Sevillian market beside the Bullring colonnades as Don José slipped between them to kill his fist victim. The opening scene sported a real fountain which was used variously for children to splash in, the soldiers to sit by and Carmen herself to suggestively dangle her toes in. Don José was performed by internationally acclaimed tenor, conductor and composer, José Cura, developing his character from irreproachable, disinterested soldier to a jealous, murderous lover. The role was invested with superb psychological insight by Mr. Cura throughout his considerable performance. He was supported by brilliant Argentinian Bass, Christian Peregrino as Captain Zuniga, who received resounding applause each night, and Sebastián Angulegui as the cheeky, charming Corporal Moralès.
The local children were touching, marching on stage unaccompanied like small soldiers, to an off-stage chorus. But the arrival of the women in their beige petticoats from the cigarette factory provided the compelling, sleazy highlight. Together with the soldiers in yellow uniform, the swell of the whole choir in a feisty street brawl confirmed the Teatro Colón Chorus’ reputation as being the best, most powerful in South America. In their midst appeared the red-haired fiery gypsy woman of the title, played by the expressive Russian mezzo-soprano, Elena Maximova. Her French diction in the impossibly sensuous, ‘Habanera’ was unclear, yet she came into her own with her solo ‘Seguidilla’, danced capriciously barefooted, castanets in hand, for Don José on a table in the tavern of Act II. The much loved, ’Les tringles des sistres tintaient’ was a tour de force. With Australian Soprano, Stacey Alleaume as a dazzling Frasquita and Italian mezzo-soprano, Laura Verrecchia as the darker Mercédès, they made a formidable trio. When Baritone Gustavo Feulien entered the fray as the bandit Le Dancaïre, with tenor, Sergio Spina as his side-kick Le Remendado, things brightened up, Carmen showed her true flirtatious colours and the famous Quintet proved a delightful vignette.
Act III, the bandits’ mountain hideaway, was tenderly introduced by flute and harp melodies as the whole cast traipsed down the hillside. Maximova was heard most clearly and beautifully as she kneeled front of stage, dealing the cards of her fate, declaiming, ‘Death’, while Frasquita and Mercedes drew Fortune and Love.
In dramatic and vocal counterpoint to Carmen’s fickle, elusive nature came the figure of José’s betrothed childhood sweetheart, Micaëla. Romanian lyrical soprano, Anita Hartig has been acclaimed for her, “lovely purity of sound”, and in Muscat she achieved pin-drop silence for her perfectly controlled, velvety warm soliloquy, ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ which rose to a tender yet powerful climax. It was introduced by a haunting horn motive, played by principal horn player, Rodolfo Rosón, suggesting a full moon . Her poignant duet with Don José in Act 1, scene 7, ‘Parle-moi de ma mère!’, reflected a convincing chemistry as Micaëla tried to persuade José to return home and thus save himself from his destructive fate.
To complete the love triangle, the celebrated toreador, Escamillo, appeared in Act II to regale the crowd with the iconic, ‘Toreador Song’. It was executed with huge stage presence and confidence by the rotund Romanian Baritone, George Patean. But perhaps one of the most intimate moments of the opera was José Cura’s heartfelt, impassioned ‘Flower Song’ when he makes Carmen understand how much he loves her, thinking only of her during his two months imprisonment through the sweet scent of the flower she had first thrown him, ‘like a bullet’. The audience was spell-bound into silence as Cura reached the height of impassioned emotion in, ’La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’.
Act IV, the shortest, opened in Escamillo’s bullring amid pomp and ceremony – complete with two horses from the Royal Cavalry of Oman. It ended with Carmen and Don José’s final Duet, ‘C’est toi! C’est moi!’ where José must, inevitably, stab the contemptuous Carmen out of a possessive jealousy from which he could never escape. This most tragic epilogue was metred out again on Thursday and Saturday nights to packed houses of Muscat’s faithful opera-goers who await another tragedy in ‘La Bohème’ next month.
Photos by KHALID AL BUSAID