Because of a series of strikes that plagued its first run, not too many opera lovers managed to see Davide Livermore’s production of Carmen at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa last year;  some performances were given in concert form, while others, including the one I was supposed to attend, were cancelled altogether.  And so this first revival came with all the trappings of a new production, especially because word of mouth described it as controversial to say the least.  And controversial indeed it is, in a country such as Italy where the slightest deviance from the libretto’s original time and setting is still viewed suspiciously.  Responsible also for the sets (the costumes on the contrary are by Gianluca Falaschi), Davide Livermore, an Italian despite his last name, moved the action of Cuba in 1959, right before, during and just after the Revolution.  Such a decision had monumental repercussions on the whole opera, and it is easy to understand the reason part of the audience felt disoriented.  Those who were able to forget bull-fighters, castanets, manzanillas, and all that recalls Spain circa 1820 found an extremely coherent production, where the smallest detail, the slightest gesture had been evidently pondered with the utmost care, a visually arresting and emotionally charged Carmen that often dealt blows below the belt, reminding one that this is a story, one of female suppression, that knows no time nor place.  Projections of Cuban women smoking – obviously – cigars accompany the prelude (the audience clapping right before the “fate motive” say something about the sorry state of opera and art in general in Italy); the first act takes place during the last gasps of the Batista dictatorship, and with its brutality sets the tone of the entire production.  Carmen is first shown coming out of the Hotel Seville mocking and engaging in a catfight with the bourgeois wife of a man (running away in his underwear) whom she had just apparently been entertaining, and begins her Habanera.  Livermore’s Carmen does not have much feminine grace, does not exude sensuality from every pore, and is not presented like a conventional femme fatale; rather she is a strong-willed woman fighting very hard to assert her freedom both in her sentimental life life and in society.  It becomes clear at the end of Act I that she will take an active role in the Revolution, and in the following acts, instead of being a smuggler with the task of distracting the guards, she will not hesitate to cut their throats.

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It is a legitimate view of this iconic character, which however needs a special type of singer to be fully convincing.  Sonia Ganassi was a huge case of miscasting: le mot n’est pas galant, but her body type and voice are simply wrong for Carmen in general and for such a peculiar, almost extreme reading in particular.  It is not just a matter of lacking the physique du rôle; the biggest problem was the her trying hard, too hard to be a character that seems to be beyond her reach. The strain was vocal as well. One of the finest bel-canto mezzo-sopranos of the last twenty-five years, she hasn’t had the same type of unconditional acclaim with her recent forays into a more dramatic repertoire, which, together with the wear and tear of time, have noticeably pauperised her once supple, creamy, amber tinted timbre. Now she forcibly tries to project a recalcitrant voice especially in the low and middle registers, where the whole role lies; in this respect the “Card Scene” was the nadir of her performance. Her top is still resonant, and as a matter of fact her best moments were those high As flat in the final duet where on the contrary many Carmens come to grief.

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Livermore has a brilliant, unconventional concept of the character of Don José as well, particularly in the last act, where, instead of appearing like the unshaven and dishevelled wreck of tradition, he walks in neatly dressed (though by no means tamed) in his Act One soldier uniform: he now embodies the Restoration futilely attempting to turn back the clock of history.  In this case, the boyish looks of Francesco Meli seconded the director’s vision.  Meli is considered one of the very best Italian tenors active today, and rightly so; now 35 years old, he was able to successfully transition from light-lyric to spinto in a very short time.  He has everything a great Don José needs; a strong, full, well projected central register, with an effortless top.  His exquisite vocal technique allows him to sing piano, which he did especially in the first act duet with Micaela.  In my opinion the least successful moment of his performance was however “La fleur”, and only because he intentionally decided to give a crowd-pleasing rendition meant to display the power of his voice, to the detriment of all the soft singing Bizet prescribes: I know he is able to sing the final B flat piano if he puts his mind to it.    His wife, Serena Gamberoni, was an excellent Micaela, with a medium-sized lyric soprano evenly produced and with a nice ping on top.  Young bass-baritone Mattia Olivieri made a favourable impression: he has some buoyant grace, a sunny upper register and decent low notes, as well as a nice legato, and in such an extrovert role his matinee idol looks are a definite plus.

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With the exception of a vocally unsteady John Paul Huckle as Zuniga, the supporting cast was excellent: Marina Ogii as Mercedes revealed a warm mezzo and Daria Kovalenko (Frasquita) provided the necessary shining high notes to dominate the ensembles.  Quite good were also Ricardo Crampton (Moralès) and Roberto Maietta (Le Dancaïre), though special mention goes to Manuel Pierattelli who, as Le Remendado, showed a ringing leading tenor timbre, in perfect accordance with Livermore’s view of the two smugglers, portrayed as merciless executioners rather than the comic caricatures of a certain tradition.

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The Chorus, normally excellent, showed this time some unbalance, with the tenors seemingly trying to upstage the other sections.  The biggest disappointment however came from the pit, where Philippe Auguin plodded through the score with a heavy hand.  His orchestra was continually slow, except for the quintet where, all of sudden and unexpectedly, he rushed his singers causing them to gasp for extra breaths.  There was nothing of Bizet’s superb balance of charm and fatality: an indolent, gloomy performance often short of dramatic pulse.  Carmen is largely a series of impassioned confrontations between the lovers.  There are no moments of shared rapture in it, and the closest approximation of a love scene is the tepid little passage in Act IV for Carmen and Escamillo.  Here in Genoa we heard very little atmospheric brashness, humour or sense of spontaneity.  Among the many available versions, Auguin performed the Didion edition with widely reduced dialogues.  While some conversation may be omitted without too much damage, some dialogues are necessary to convey precious information about the past of the lead characters, and especially jarring are the cuts surrounding Micaela’s aria, which isolate her dramatically.

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All things considered, the force of Livermore’s creation was such as to withstand the orchestra’s sluggishness: it would be exciting to view it again with a different conductor and a more suitable protagonist.

Nicola Lischi

three stars

photo credit: Marcello Orselli