This Covent Garden production of Bizet’s Carmen, makes a vivid musical and dramatic impression. Director Francesca Zambello creates a properly Spanish atmosphere, filling the stage with a profusion of detailed characters. In Act One’s town square each of the many soldiers, strollers, cigarette factory girls, and children are individuals, so there’s a bustle of continuous, realistic activity. That attention to detail carries over to the rest of the opera, involving viewers in the action. Tanya McCallin’s sets are a perfect foil for the direction: simple, movable panels that serve as lightly sketched backdrops for the town square, a tavern, the smugglers’ mountain hideaway, and the final scene in front of the bull ring. But what makes this Carmen special is the singing and acting of the principals. Carmen is Anna Caterina Antonacci, a soprano known for the intensity she brings to her performances. Without taking anything to excess, her Carmen is a fiery temptress, sexy, insistent on setting her own terms for love and personal freedom. She sings all the set pieces well and, with tenor Jonas Kaufmann as her besotted lover, Don José, makes the final scene a hair-raising experience. If anything, Kaufmann trumps her with a beautifully sung, rounded portrait of the village boy turned soldier ensnared in a world beyond his experience. Kaufmann conveys the complexity of the character and etches his slow descent into obsessive madness. His rendition of the Flower Song is extraordinary for beauty of tone, phrasing and the soft singing essential to make this aria’s full impact. The toreador, Escamilio, is finely sung and acted by Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. He makes his entrance on horseback, sings the Toreador Song with brash arrogance, and projects this haughty, self-absorbed figure to perfection. And Norah Amsellem, as the village girl who loves Don José, uses her attractive soprano to depict her purity and innocence. Smaller roles are well done, with special mention due to bass Matthew Rose as Zuniga, the lieutenant of the guard. The vibrant conducting of Antonio Pappano is a big plus here; pacing is perfect, rhythms vibrantly precise, and melodies shaped with care. Under his baton, the Royal Opera House chorus and orchestra complete a rich, well-detailed performance of Bizet’s masterpiece. Lighting designs of Paule Constable add to the atmosphere of each scene, while television director Jonathan Haswell’s cameras always seem to be where they should be. --Dan Davis

Carmen is an all-regions disc in 16:9 ratio. Sound options include PCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 Surrdound. Sung in French, subtitles include English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese.

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