A perfect Cosi fan tutte

If I could get away with it I would write a one-word review of the OPUS ARTE DVD of the 2010 Royal Opera production of Cosi fan tutte. That imperfect one-word review would be Perfect!

But please indulge me as I rave in more than just one word about what might be the most perfectly realized staging of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s most seriously cynical comedy.

Director Jonathan Miller is to my mind a genius who revealed to so very many of us throughout his career many treasurable insights into some of the essential works for the lyric stage.

Here he crafted in this no-nonsense Cosi a perfectly balanced mix of unflinching realism and theatrical artifice. In this production the late English director wears in addition to his regular hat of stage director those of set designer, costume designer, and lighting designer, crafting a unified vision in which all of the action happens in an indoor setting. Here there are no doors, no windows, just a couple of openings for entrances and exits. Few props are provided, lighting changes are subtle, the costumes are more like contemporary dress: a business suit and top coat for Don Alfonso, lounge wear for the sisters. Despina wears a smart business suit not a maid’s outfit. Guglielmo and Ferrando go from Army fatigues to hippie get ups. There are few pieces of furniture and many of them are covered up in dust cloths.  

Most gratifying is Miller’s work with the actors: an international cast in which each of the six principals sings in flawless Italian with a clear understanding of what is being sung by them and to them.

Sir Thomas Allen is elegantly dapper and faultless as Don Alfonso, and in his sixties he sings very well indeed. Rebecca Evans is earthy and pretty as Despina, and she sings gloriously. The four lovers are sheer perfection (there goes that word again!): Pavol Breslik a fine lyric tenor, Stéphane Degout as good an actor and singer in the role of Guglielmo as I have ever encountered. The sisters are lovely: Jurgyta Adamonyté a terrific singing actress and very funny as Dorabella, and Maria Bengtsson a vocally elegant and dramatically vulnerable Fiordiligi.

Thomas Hengelbrock leads the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House with a perfect command of the score, allowing the singers all the room in the world  to make both music and text come alive from start to finish.

Indeed, perfect!

Rafael de Acha     ALL ABOUT THE ARTS                                            

The superb c/o Orchestra signals with Divertissement, their debut album for BIS a bright future

Jacque Ibert’s subversively anarchic Divertissement is a six-movement suite of incidental music that the French composer wrote in 1930 for Eugene Labiche’s farce The Italian Straw Hat.

The hat of the title, meant for a groom to wear at his wedding, is eaten by a horse at the start of the play, setting in motion a chaotic series of comic twists and turns that Ibert turns into a bizarre musical romp in which snippets of Mendelssohn, Ravel, Debussy, Boulez, Wagner, and Satie keep insanely comic off-kilter company with each other.

The Nocturne could be used as film music for a Gallic thriller starring your favorite French star. The Valse parodies the vulgarity or the inspired brilliance of three-quarter time ditties, depending of the provenance. The Cortège deceives he unsuspecting listener into thinking that a funeral march is about to happen, that is until Ibert turns it into a joyful romp that hovers between Mendelssohn and cacophony.  The opening Introduction, the insanely Parade, and the rollicking Finale bring memories of silent film clowns.

Ibert’s music is brilliantly orchestrated, inventively melodic, and fiendishly funny in its satire of any musical fad and fashion that surfaced during the composer’s lifetime.

Unbeknownst to me until I first heard his music in this album, Jean Émile Auguste Bernard was a late Romantic French composer. Bernard – not to be confused with his namesake the painter Émile Bernard, composed his delightful Divertissement for chamber orchestra as an uncharacteristically light-hearted, often playful work, especially for an artist who made his living as a church organist. The three-movement offers countless solo opportunities to the woodwinds of the marvelous c/o Orchestra.

Béla Bartók’s Divertimento is a mid-career, three-movement work for string orchestra composed on the brink of World War II.

Bartók was a friend and musical protégée of Paul Sacher, the founder of the Swiss chamber orchestra Basler Kammerorchester, which commissioned Bartók to compose the Divertimento, a 23-minutes short but nevertheless complex work which the composer wrote in the space of two weeks.

Even though Bartók felt a bit like fish out of water away from his birth country, his mood was cautiously optimistic and his music for this intriguing composition reflects it, especially in the energetically brisk first and final movements. The middle Adagio gives hints of the angst that permeated a great number of the Hungarian master’s oeuvre, giving this  Divertimento a sometimes serious tone not often associated with the genre.

American composer Michael Ippolito’s soberly titles three of the four movements of his Divertimento: Con moto, Minuetto, Allegro, etc. But then he sneaks up on us with the work’s second movement, which he titles Aria burlesca, and which he deceptively begins with sweet figurations from the woodwinds. Then, suddenly, the music purposely stumbles and there is a thump from the percussion, which in a comic opera could signal the buffo bass drunkenly tripping on a piece of furniture and falling. Then we know that we are treading a mine field of comedy-in-music in which anything goes. And it does.

The third movement – a Minuet and Allegro Maestoso – sounds like a movement from a classical symphony as if Old Papa Haydn had composed under the influence of some illegal substance. The harmonies follow each other in topsy-turvy fashion, though they make perfectly good, if humorous, sense. The raucous music is all of a piece and enormous fun.

The final movement starts as a consonant Adagio that suddenly turns into a fugue in the strings with hiccups from the brass and burps from a dyspeptic timpani. Here and there nobly melodic phrases pop up that deceive one once more into thinking that the composer might be getting serious on us. But no, Ippolito is not deadly serious but lively comical and equipped with major chops as a seriously gifted musical artist, which goes to show that humor in any art form is one of the most difficult things to accomplish.

Throughout the CD the superbly enterprising, conductor-less c/o Orchestra plays brilliantly, with equal participation from all thirty of its members, signaling with Divertissement, their debut album for BIS that their creative future in our new-normal, post-pandemic musical world looms brightly.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

WHAT SOME MUSIC AND THEATRE FRIENDS ARE DOING THESE DAYS

WHAT SOME MUSIC AND THEATRE FRIENDS ARE DOING THESE DAYS

For creative people in the arts – many of them free-lancers who live from gig to gig – economic stability and security are most often uncertain. Now in the midst of the current pandemic their financial challenges have increased thousand-fold.

An unemployed set designer and theatre teacher is “… mostly bored…going through the thousands of photos from my travels. I also participate in an occasional on line scavenger hunt with other artists and theater folk. It’s a lot of fun and it raises money for various causes…”

Now that the pandemic has become a world-wide crisis, freelance artists and even those previously employed by major orchestras, regional theatres and dance companies are all facing major life decisions: “Do I move in with my parents or friends or move out of the big city or even consider a career change…What can I do to survive?”

Another friend – a sound designer, sounds off a somewhat positive note: “Well, my work has pretty much stopped short. I haven’t been employed since mid-March (2020) … all my summer shows have been cancelled. I can’t say that I haven’t enjoyed the break however. Having months off to decompress has…allowed me to reflect on what being a freelance designer means…Now that I’ve been home with my family for so long, I see how important that is to me and I will concentrate on a better work-life balance…”

Here is one of two musicians: “We put together a 5-day virtual violin intensive – like a camp – a crash course on music theory, violin technique, sight reading, and more! The biggest unfortunate reality for us was being unable to travel… and visit my grandparents – something (we) have done every summer of our lives. Thankfully, they are all healthy and know how to video call!”

In spite of having lost many gigs – one of them an entire concert series that she directs, this young musician is grateful for a ‘drive by’ concert that a neighbor hired her for and for the opportunity to grow a vegetable garden.

These are just some of the stories about artist friends from the world of the performing arts – a world in which almost all activities can only be pursued in conjunction with others. Solo instrumentalists need most of the time a pianist or an orchestra or at the very least another instrumentalist. A theatre designer needs a technical staff to flesh out his design concept.

A young man that we know has lost his part-time work both as an accompanist to singers and as a music librarian, on top of his work playing for various churches around town. All of it is on hold.

A composer who has made a successful living in New York for most of his working life has left the Big Apple now that work has all but dried up and has come home where rentals are cheaper and where he hopes to diversify his income by doing some part time teaching.

A bass-baritone and voice teacher has been able to continue doing his instruction on line, but most all up and coming singing gigs have vanished from his schedule. He is even contemplating the possibility of doing a recital on line. As a tenured professor in a major music conservatory he holds out the hope that a projected student production that he is slated to direct and co-produce will take place, although the school, in his words “has had to reorganize and rethink, and in some cases reprogram the entire season.”

Some stories, like the one about a pianist and her husband, a composer are compelling. “Like many of our colleagues, we were very sad to see the cancellation and postponement of performances and projects for which we were very excited. However, we have been extremely lucky to be able to take part in projects in response to COVID-19 (such as) our own series which merges experimental video, photography, and contemporary music. This extra time has given us the opportunity to reconnect with nature, slow down our speed, and work and practice in new and rewarding ways…We both have found so much hope and imagination from our colleagues and the arts during this pandemic, and we want to share that positive message as much as possible.”

Designers, instrumentalists, singers… They all need an audience. They need Federal, State, and City assistance. They need governmental and private entities, donors, foundations, corporations to step up to help, so that the artists in our country can continue to do their work in post-pandemic America, to lift up our spirits and alleviate our cares and our grief.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

ONE MOVEMENT SYMPHONIES

Recorded in 2016 and just released by Reference Recordings, ONE MOVEMENT SYMPHONIES includes three rarities by Barber, Sibelius and Scriabin, with Michael Stern leading the Kansas City Symphony

Structured as a uninterrupted work, at times spiced with dissonance, yet steadily tonal through its twenty-one minute running time, Barber’s opus 9 is an early work that quickly established his reputation as a gifted composer.

By holding on throughout to a brief theme, Barber either contracts the value of the notes that make it up to create a lively tempo for a Scherzo-like section, or else expands the note values to create an extended Adagio.

By layering melody on melody, inexhaustibly varying the instrumentation, and putting to work all manner of rhythmic devices, Barber creates a sonic world in which there is not one moment in which the composition overstays its welcome.

Hefty in its use of the brass, Barber builds towards the end a dramatic crescendo that leads to a massive sequence of chords that unequivocally announces the end of this extraordinary composition. It is amazing how Samuel Barber could straddle the modern and the Romantic in this 1936 Symphony in One Movement.

Leading the peerless musicians of the Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern delivers an extraordinary reading of Barber’s work.

Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 in C major was at first titled Fantasia Sinfonica No. 1. Once published in 1925 it became Symphony No. 7. Sibelius had complied with the requirements of a classical musical education by writing six prior symphonies, traditionally structured and conservative in form and spirit.

But it is in the music anchored in the rugged history and landscape of this, the most beautiful of the northernmost European countries, culturally rich and firm in its people’s determination to walk to the beat of their own hearts that the Finish composer excels in originality and inspiration.

En Saga, the Karelia Suite, Finlandia, and the early Kullervo are all tone poems unfettered by any academic expectations created with a cool brain and an impassioned warm heart. And thus it is with this mysterious work born out of the brain of one of Europe’s most intriguing 20th century composers.

The work is brief and unflagging in its tensile intensity, ever underpinned by inspired, disciplined playing from the members of the Kansas City Symphony, with Michael Stern at its helm.

Alexander Scriabin’s Symphony no. 4 is better known as The Poem of Ecstasy. Densely orchestrated, harmonically capricious, rhythmically free-wheeling, melodically unpredictable, Scriabin’s tone poem surprises at every musical turn. Labeled by some as mystical, experimental by others, Scriabin concocted a brand of Russian Modernism that sounds much closer to Ravel in its unapologetic earthiness than to the Russian masters with whom he studied.

Again, the Kansas City Symphony members turn on a musical dime with some gorgeous woodwind playing. As is the case throughout this wonderful album, Michael Stern leads with a firm hand and a perfect command on the Scriabin style.

Kudos to the production/recording team: led by Producer David Frost and Recording Engineer Keith O. Johnson for the interestingly annotated booklet and the crystal clear engineering.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

A Consummation Devoutly to be Wished.

“Something about this music just seemed to make sense now, when so little else did. Immersing myself in Bach’s pure universe offered a tabula rasa, a chance to musically reset as an unravelling catastrophe, compelling us to slow down and re-evaluate all kinds of basic things in our lives: priorities, careers, relationships, even where and how we live…If Bach served as my first musical mooring in confinement, I returned to Beethoven… Indeed, the directness, virility, determination, and sheer willpower of Beethoven … aligned with my own growing resolve to transcend this trial. As with Bach, Beethoven’s goal-oriented approach and universal vision, devoid of extraneous content, appealed especially at this urgent time.”

Thus writes pianist Andrew von Oeyen about the music of Bach and Beethoven he plays with the directness, virility, determination, and sheer willpower of which he so eloquently speaks in his annotations to his all-Bach and Beethoven album for Warner Classics.

In it he combines precision, technical impeccability, superb musicality and a perfect blend of intellectual acuity and heart, devoting 8 tracks to Bach’s Overture in the French Style, BWV 831, and two more to the Wilhelm Kempff arrangements for piano of the Siciliano from Sonata No. 2 in E-flat for flute and harpsichord, BWV 1031 and the Largo from the Concerto No.5 in F minor for harpsichord, strings and basso continuo, BWV 1056.

The remaining seven tracks – gloriously executed – are taken up by Beethoven’s Sonata No. 13 “Quasi Una Fantasia”, Op. 27, No. 1, and the Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata”. This is a remarkable collection featuring a superb artist at the peak of his powers and only in need of the kind of music making for which we all long: a live performance in front of a live audience: a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Rafael de Acha             All About the Arts

Last Tango Before Sunrise

Peer Music is releasing Last Tango Before Sunrise: The Music of José Serebrier.

With the composer himself conducting the Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra and surrounded by a group of peerless soloists, among them flautists Nestor Torres and Gabriel Goñí-Dondi, harpist Sara Cutler, pianist Nadia Shpachenko, soprano Solène Le Van, and the members of Moscow’s Gnessin Percussion Ensemble led by Ilia Melikhov, the album features an interesting sampling of Serebrier’s journey as a composer, leading from the dissonances of the 1957 Piano Sonata and the explorations of the conflation of sound and colors in the 1971 Colores Mágicos.

In certain early compositions featured in the album Serebrier taps into his Latin American roots, seeking to return to the richness of the music of his native Uruguay. That search for the simple and authentic is evident in the highly rhythmic Candombe and Conga and is most successful in the ravishingly melodic Danza, in the sultry Tango in Blue, in the intriguing Almost a Tango and in the inspired work that gives the album its title: Last Tango Before Sunrise.

Throughout the multiple compositions featured in this fascinating album the composer gives his soloists ample opportunities to excel in music idiomatically suited to the various instruments for which he writes.

The album is nicely produced and recorded in various venues and abundantly annotated with commentary by the composer himself.

Rafael de Acha       All About the Arts

AN ALLOWANCE FOR PETER GELB

When I was a seven year old kid and able to ride a public bus to school on my own, I was given an allowance of 25 cents every day. That quarter allowed me to either choose to walk approximately a mile each way or ride a public bus for 8 cents each way, so that, if I chose to walk, I had a whole 25 cents, if I took the bus both ways I still had 9 cents left for a mid-afternoon snack to be enjoyed after school. Bear in mind this was in 1950’s Cuba.

Later, in my early teens and on weekends my allowance would go up to one peso that my father gave me on Saturday mornings. I could go to the movies for 50 cents and have four centavos left over after one ten centavos pop corn, one ten centavos Milky Way, two 5 centavos cokes, and sixteen centavos for the round trip bus fare.

Even later, when I developed a taste for the artsy and off-beat, I could take in a play in one of Havana’s several pocket-theatres or a concert in the Auditorium’s second balcony with the one peso that continued to be my unchanging allowance. By then I had opened a savings account that grew every time I had a birthday, at which time I would get gifts ranging from five to twenty-five pesos from my mother, my father, my godmother, my godfather, and several of my aunts and uncles on both sides.

I couldn’t bring more than $5 with me when I left Cuba. Once settled in my new homeland, I got my first job as a janitor on a night-shift, and continued to hone my cash management skills on a $20-a-week salary while attending school with a mix of student loans and partial scholarships making it all possible.

Several years later those student loans had to be paid off and lucky me I got a teaching job right out of school that allowed me and my wife to avoid being sent to debtor’s jail.

May years later, in the late 1980’s, when my wife and I co-founded a theater, I had to further refine my budgeting skills, while doing the perilous balancing act familiar to so many of my colleagues in arts management, so as to survive one more year, one more NEA budget cut, one more play tanking after another selling out.

All of the above brings me round to the subject of The Metropolitan Opera’s Finances and Artistic Planning, and the pressing question of who has been minding the store at the MET?

The annual costs of mounting and running an opera season are staggering and those costs are never off-set by ticket sales. They have never been, since the San Cassiano Opera House opened in Venice in 1637, nor will they ever be. Contributed income has to make up the difference, and donations are subject to the vagaries of the economy and the folks with the deep pockets: up one year, down the next.

The MET management is now under scrutiny and will hopefully learn to watch its dollars and cents. No more Ring disasters, please! Hold on to the old productions a little longer or come up with new production concepts that do not call for cumbersome, noisy, twenty-million-dollar machines that frequently end up malfunctioning in the middle of the performance

Has anybody thought of asking Peter Gelb to voluntarily cut back his salary? Is anybody in the department that oversees the costs of physical production authoritative enough to either green-light or nix the mindless spending that goes on with some of the productions the Met has been trotting out? Will there be yet another Prince Igor with a field of hand-made satin poppies costing thousands of dollars?

Memory can be faulty, but whatever of it I have left has a special place for the glory days of the MET during the years when the late John Dexter was one sharp prong of the Bliss-Levine-Dexter triumvirate that brought to the company’s Lincoln Center stage some of the most memorable productions ever.

There was the Dexter/Svoboda Les vêpres siciliennes, the Marilyn Horne/James McCracken Le prophète, Britten’s Billy Budd with Peter Pears. And there was, week after week great conductors at the podium, great art on stage, and common sense buttressed by solid management behind the scenes.

The Met has gone placid and flaccid with an artistic planning department that often causes one to say out loud: “What were they thinking?” Production values have plummeted, often ranging from questionable to wrong-headed to just plain tacky.

There’s the recent Eugene Onegin with its plethora of columns in the middle of a ballroom. There’s the updated Don Pasquale set in Naples. There’s the weird Traviata, with the gigantic clock and the all-male-looking chorus with the sopranos and altos in tuxes. There was the mercifully-replaced Tosca, chock-full of sexually-explicit scenes that sent patrons fuming up the aisles and out the lobby doors of the MET. All of these wrong-headed exercises in futility replaced older but better and beloved productions.

The setting of a Rigoletto in the Vegas of the rat-pack 1960’s or Falstaff set in 1950’s England or Manon Lescaut plopped down in Nazi-occupied France brings these classics no closer to the sensibilities of a contemporary and younger audience than productions done in the period and place meant by the librettist and the composer. The MET continues to disappoint its aging audience with its concept productions while it fails to capture any of the potential new audience that opera needs in order to survive in the 21st century.

When Stanislavsky and Gordon Craig and Meyerhold and Vahtangov and Jacques Copeau and all the other great pioneers of 20th century theatre did their revolutionary work, they came at it equipped with formidable knowledge of dramatic literature and the visual arts. They were, each and every one of them, great artists and insightful intellectuals, both director-designers and dramaturges, whether working side by side with living playwrights or on their own, with the spirits of Shakespeare and Lope and Sophocles and Moliere hovering about.

Those modern theatre pioneers directed theatre, opera and operetta with the same curatorial fastidiousness that is sorely lacking in the work of many of today’s directors, whose productions more often than not suffer from directorial laziness and dramaturgical cluelessness.

Many of the productions the Metropolitan Opera has been trotting out in recent years fail to tap into textual clues provided by the libretto and dramatic clues provided by the composer. I have yet to see a new production at the Peter Gelb MET that can remotely compare to the finest work of Patrice Chéreau, Franco Zeffirelli, Giorgio Strehler, Ingmar Bergman or Lucchino Visconti. Where are all the world class regisseurs today?

An injection of fresh creativity informed by solid taste and sound management skills is desperately needed for the MET to survive and thrive. Nobody wants to confront the doomsday possibility of the Metropolitan Opera imploding artistically and financially and ceasing operations.

 Rafael de Acha       All About the Arts

FASCINATING RUSSIAN MUSIC

The Symphony No. 2 by the much neglected Russian composer Mili Balakirev is but one of the rare treasures in the ALTO release ALC1429 of the music of the least prolific yet most influential of the Russian Romantics who integrated and led the group that came to be known as the Mighty Five.

The late Evgeny Svetlanov conducts the USSR Symphony Orchestra with utmost flair and an intense feel for Balakirev’s quintessentially Russian music, which his forces replicate with brilliant playing.

The Symphony’s Second movement, titled Scherzo alla Cosacca by its composer and the tempo di Polacca finale leave no doubt as to where Balakirev found the inspiration for his splendidly orchestrated, unabashedly melodic, folk-inspired compositions.        

The nicely engineered compact disc includes the Overture on Three Russian Songs, a Suite in D Minor on Pieces by Chopin, and the tone poem In Bohemia.

In the Russian label Northern Flowers’s release Nostalgic Russia for Violin & Piano Japanese violinist Hideko Udagawa amply demonstrates her affinity for the music of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Arensky and other Russian Romantics.

Her program ranges from the familiar Fritz Kreisler’s transcription of the Hymn to the Sun from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel and Tchaikovsky’s Valse sentimentale to off-the-beaten-path selections by Kabalevsky, Arensky, and other post-Romantic 20th century composers.

Encompassing Scriabin’s haunting Nocturne Op.5 No.1 and a superb reading of five pieces from Shostakovich’s Preludes for piano Op.34 transcribed for her instrument by the artist, Udegawa’s recital satisfies with the artist’s elegant musicality and inventive programming.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts

Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax play with hope amid tears

Sony Classical is releasing Hope Amid Tearsa recording of Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano. In the album Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax play all five of Beethoven’s  sonatas for cello and piano in addition to three sets of variations for cello and piano.

In 1809 Beethoven sent a copy of a recently-completed sonata to his friend Ignaz von Gleichenstein with the note in Latin “Inter lacrimas et luctum” (“Amid tears and grief”), an oblique commentary on the state of Vienna in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, a time that coincided with Beethoven’s despondency over his worsening deafness and his despair over his personal life.

Emanuel Ax writes:  “His mastery of musical craft was second to none, of course, but it is his indomitable spirit in the face of personal tragedy that makes him unique. In this period of world-wide unease, grief, and suffering, it is perhaps fitting that we are also celebrating the 250th birthday of the composer who represents what is best in our humanity.”

The album includes the Sonata No.1 in F Major, Op. 5 No. 1; the Sonata No.2 in G minor, Op. 5 No. 2; the Sonata No.3 in A Major, Op. 69; the Sonata No.4 in C Major, Op. 102 No.1; the Sonata No.5 in D Major, Op. 102 No. 2; the 7 Variations on “Bei Mannern, welche Liebe fuhlen”; the 12 Variations on a Theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus;  and the 12 Variations in F major on “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen.”

It is well known how Beethoven can traverse changing moods that fluctuate from the meditative to the melancholy to the joyful to the contemplative to the achingly sad to music in which sudden gleams of hope are tinged with joy.

Even more remarkable it is to hear two towering artists capable to penetrate the depths of this music and then share it with the listener without a hint of grandstanding or egotism. Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax give us in this remarkable recording a heartfelt and insightful interpretation of several works by Beethoven at a time when music this noble is very much needed.

Rafael de Acha        ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

A PERFECT CARMEN

It often happens to me when reviewing a newly-released operatic DVD of a familiar opera that I find myself skipping from set number to set number. I do this to fight off annoyance with the mindless capriciousness of stage directors as they inflict damage on the great works of the standard repertoire.

That was not the case as I sat and watched with delight all four acts of Bizet’s Carmen in a recent Naxos release of a superb 2009 Opera Comique production staged by the English director Adrian Noble and led by his compatriot, Sir John Elliot Gardiner helming the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir.

At the front and center of this fine staging is the estimable soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, not quite fifty back then and still at the peak of her powers. The Italian singer delivers here a ferocious performance, exquisitely sung and full of volatility, mystery, and seductiveness.

The cast, ranging from the achingly vulnerable Micaela of Anne Catherine Gillet to the vocally and dramatically first-rate Don José of Andrew Richards, to the elegant Escamillo of Nicolas Cavallier is impeccable. A terrific ensemble of Opera Comique regulars – Virginie Fachon, Annie Gill, Francis Dudziak, and Vincent Ordonneau as the smugglers – and Riccardo Novaro as Morales and Matthew Brook as Zuniga, are note-perfect.

What is most remarkable about the entire ensemble, from the leads to the singers in the supporting roles is the total commitment to the assignment: the handling of the spoken dialogue, the detailed acting, and, above all, a respect for the dynamic markings specified by Bizet.

In the Micaela- Don José and later in the Flower Song, Andrew Richards scales down his sizeable voice to great effect, spinning out a ravishing voix mixte that serves the music, as the singer sets aside any vocal grandstanding. At other times Anna Caterina Antonacci avoids any cheap effects and gratuitous optional notes, singing exactly what Bizet prescribed.

The Monteverdi Choir looks like real denizens of Seville, dressed in authentic garb designed by set and costume designer Mark Thompson, and singing gloriously. Sir John Elliot Gardiner obtains stupendous playing from the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique all the while being the ideal singers’ conductor.

The Opera Comique holds under nine hundred patrons, a perfect-size house for the many middle-weight lyric voices that make life-long careers in that theatre, an ideal venue for Bizet’s Carmen.

Rafael de Acha                  All About the Arts