Sunday, January 07, 2007

Jose takes the cake

Still reeling after Carmen at Covent Garden last night. I'm glad to report that Jonas Kaufmann is indeed the bees' knees, even more so than anticipated (and I dug out my old glasses so was able, more or less, to see as well as hear).

The production is a tad clunky at times - populist, West-Endish, traditional, with an orange tree, big orange walls complete with shadows, a well-behaved horse for Escamillo and a couple of walk-on roles for Polyanne the donkey, who I'm told has also worked with Placido Domingo. Apparently there were chickens too, but I missed them (wrong glasses?). A massive cut at the beginning of the final act was puzzling. But among a few superb touches are: the opening image to the Fate motif section of the overture - Don Jose being prepared for his execution, rendering the opera a flashback, rather in the spirit of Merimee's original story; the end of Act III when Escamillo sings off stage and Carmen, instead of leaving with the smugglers, suddenly decides to run off in the direction of his voice; but above all, the scenes between Carmen and Don Jose, which lifted the whole evening onto quite another level.

As Francesca Zambello told me when I interviewed her a few weeks ago, Carmen is all about the chemistry, and this chemistry was extraordinary. The murder scene was exceedingly harrowing - nothing in the rest of the show had remotely prepared me for what Antonacci and Kaufmann would do with it, nor for its impact.

Anna Caterina Antonacci is a glorious singer - more soprano than mezzo in timbre, though with the range to cope with the lot; but she'd be a more natural princess than she seemed a natural gypsy. One never really sensed the fizz of sorcery that's expected from Carmen. Yet perhaps it worked because the unfolding action was truly Jose's story, and not only because the opening images put him at the front of our minds. Kaufmann's Flower Song created the kind of magic atmosphere that you hear once in a blue moon - the heart-thumping, knee-wobbling magic where you can't quite believe your ears - the phrasing, the pianissimos, the raw emotion, the espressivity in every word and overtone. Throughout the opera, he seemed a man possessed, conveying the depth of his character with even the smallest of consistent signs. This Jose is doomed before he even meets Carmen: his character is his fate. Something was always going to send him over the edge; it happens to be her. Even Carmen remains mesmerised by him to a subtle degree despite herself, and dies in his arms when he stabs her.

I think I was probably wrong, talking about his Strauss disc the other day, to call him a 'heldentenor' - he may perhaps become one in time (next decade's greatest Tristan?) and he's still only in his early thirties. But now he's the most romantic of German romantics, ideal for this role, Mozart, Strauss of course, he'd be a great Lensky, and if he ever sings Schumann's song cycles in Australia, I think I'd fly there specially to hear him. He's one who knows that the soft is more powerful than the loud, passion more significant than virtuosity, giving more important than taking.

Would someone please tell Tony Pappano that? The orchestral side had its moments, but the insensitivity of Pappano's accompaniment was inexcusable. If Don Jose is doing his magic, half-light pianissimo but the orchestra comes crashing in at mezzo-forte, what's the earthly use? If the fine baritone Ildebrando d'Arcangelo's Toreador Song gets drowned out, is it any wonder that nobody seemed to know they were supposed to clap afterwards? Perhaps I'm naive, but I still dare to hope that an opera conductor's first priority might just be to make the most of his singers' capabilities and enhance their beauties, not ride roughshod over them.

Anyway, enough carping. Kaufmann is a miracle. Not just a wonderful tenor, but a great artist through and through. Time to call down some angelic protection to take good care of him.

MEANWHILE, TONIGHT AT THE WIGMORE HALL, don't miss Philippe Graffin, Raphael Wallfisch and Jeremy Menuhin's trio! Beethoven Ghost, Schumann 2 and Ravel, and it's the Sunday Times's Pick of the Week. Box office 020 7935 2141.