I opened my 2013-14 (or maybe 5774) music season tonight with Bizet’s Carmen at the Staatsoper.
The Staatsoper dusted off a 1978 production by Franco Zeffirelli, which ensured the staging matched the plot at least. The large sets, painted to look even larger, produced a traditional reading, but also had some little touches. One came when José and Carmen saw each other for the first time: everyone else on stage froze in whatever position they happened to be in, and only the two main protagonists moved, as the music amplified their clear passion. As an example of Carmen’s rough and hot personality, when she danced for José in the tavern in Act Two, lacking castanets she smashed a plate left on a table, and used the shards to click the beats. These little touches added to the drama. Unfortunately, in the end, the production at the big-picture level remained somewhat cluttered, with superfluous action by extras leading to distraction.
The Philadelphia-trained Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham headed the cast, with a sultry Carmen. Roberto Alagna, as Don José, overwhelmed her however, with a more secure stage presence and and fuller expressive voice. Something about the chemistry between these two lacked, and Alagna had much better chemistry with the Romanian Anita Hartig, who sang the smaller role of Micaela with such controlled drama that she became the most sympathetic character (and characterization) on the stage. The audience showered her with approval during the final curtain call, and the swell of the applause clearly took her by surprise judging by her facial expression. She deserved it. Just one more reason José should have married her and not gotten mixed up with Carmen.
The rest of the cast, in various supporting roles, kept up the basic required standard. The orchestra sounded terrific in the pit, led with a beaming smile by Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger.
After seeing the level of dress in the audiences deteriorate over the years, tonight marked a pleasant exception. Even though this was not a gala evening nor a special event, I saw a number of men in black tie (something I have not seen for years), including a little boy in my loge. Women wore proper gowns. While there was not as much Austrian Tracht as I like, I was far from the only one taking that option. Even the tieless tourists looked neat and clean. Sad that when an audience dresses for the opera it is so noticeable for being so unusual these days.