Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Carmen: von Otter's Raw, Visceral Take



I'll admit to huge reservations about one of my favorite mezzo's taking this role I never felt would be right for her, but Anne Sofie von Otter is the Carmen of one's dreams - or nightmares. A more gutter wenchy, ballbusting, shrewish, trash talking, vulgar Carmen I've never seen. To the critics who last summer asked "what man would ever want a woman like that?" all I can say is von Otter is so overtly sexual and raw that she makes Carmen something she has not been for me for a very long time - dangerously fascinating. This is not like any Carmen's I've seen the last last 20 years, coming more closely to Peter Brooks "Tragedie" - even outdoing it.

This Carmen is also one of the very best ensemble acted operas I've seen in ages and after one viewing is ready to be placed at the top of my DVD list.

To be sure, this will not be a Carmen to everyone's liking; it's rude, crude, violent, and emotionally dark - with an almost Dickensian quality that sends it and all its characters across the screen with a voltage that positively burns.

David McVicar's production was described as "exhilirating" and that is almost an understatement. This Carmen includes more dialogue than I ever recall hearing, making far more sense of the entire story and integrating every aspect into a taut, cohesive melodrama that I felt I was watching Carmen for the very first time.

Marcus Haddock fares far better as Jose than he did in the recent Met "Fausts" showing what, with real rehearsal time, good direction and collaboration he is capable of. It's not a voice that many would describe as beautiful, but he uses it with passion, attention to detail, text, and some exquisite shading (most notably in Jose's "Flower Song.")

This Jose and Carmen are like a bad habit for each other and Haddock reveals Jose's true violent streak letting it come out early on. The Act II fight between he and Zuniga may be the first time I literally worried someone would actually get hurt, and Zuniga getting up with blood coming out of his mouth had me, even for just a second, wondering if it was real! Haddock's later tangles with Escamillo and Carmen nearly get out of hand.

Even after he settles down to leave with Michaela, it's obvious this Jose has been pushed right over the edge and as they leave Michaela (portrayed nicely by the wonderfully fruity-voiced Lisa Milne) looks like she believes she may not make it home alive with this criminal. Frightening!


von Otter's Carmen really is so over-the-top that it nearly defies description. She smokes cigars (like a fiend) - even sings (or hums) part of the Habanera with one clenched in her teeth. Her entrance is fantastic; running down a flight of steps, hitting a fountain and washing up then plunging her head into the water to cool off. Everything she does is charged with a raw, sexual energy that is the complete obverse of refinement. Musically, she can, however, be quite refined, with amazing French and a bizarre ability to be both elegant and rude simultaneously. Her actions are never less than stunning, the way she devours an orange (biting one section out of Jose's mouth!) while singing or speaking, the smashing of a plate for her castanets, which she later tosses aside to play the rhythm on her thighs, breasts, Jose's legs, etc., all are eye popping. She's got a thousand different faces reacting to everything with . . . when Michaela shows up to rescue Jose in Act III and sings tenderly, von Otter looks like she's seeing someone from another planet, so foreign is Michaela's world from hers. Later in that same scene when her face registers, for the first time, fear, at Jose's madness, it is the stuff that chills one to the core. The characterization work she does extends far, far beyond her hip swinging, crotch grabbing obviousness - there is someone tortured in this Carmen who cries out she wants nothing more than to live "free" as she does - but she seems imprisoned in every way and her wildness almost seem like acts of desperate escapism gone wild. It is an amazing performance.


The DVD comes with some great features, photo galleries, biographies, a detailed narrated synopsis of each act with tons of production photos. Unlike most opera videos filmed over several (or more) performances, this is from one night at Glyndebourne August 17 2002 and has the energy that can only be found in a live performance. (How great that the producers saw fit to release this only months after it was taped!) I won't go overboard in describing every detail (for a change!), as I feel this really needs to be seen and I hope my obvious enthusiasm is helpful in getting folk out there to buy this thing and show the companies that we want more of this . . . lots mor

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