If you hadn’t guessed this Arena di Verona production of Carmen was by Franco Zeffirelli, any doubts would be swept away during the Prelude. A cast of thousands floods the stage: flamenco dancers, soldiers in unbecoming mustard and powder-blue uniforms and a simply enormous workforce at a cigarette factory that could do with suffering a few redundancies. And donkeys. Because Seville wouldn’t be Seville without a few donkeys to clop about the square.
This is picture-postcard opera for holidaymakers in Verona who might go to the opera once or twice a year. It’s traditional, it’s colourful, it’s many people’s idea of what opera is all about. And there’s nothing inherently wrong in that; but it’s not a production that would stand up to repeated viewing when you arrive back home, unpack the suitcases and stash that souvenir Venetian mask in the loft, never to see the light of day again. Zeffirelli has pared back his 1995 production’s excesses – whitewashed houses, the mountain ranges – to speed up set changes, replacing them with painted panels on poles poked into the stage.
Viewed from the terraces of the Arena, this would be an enjoyable enough performance, especially Zeffirelli’s crowd control, but up close and personal it’s an oddly lacklustre affair. Ernest Guiraud’s sung recitatives are employed, the children’s chorus sings flat and Henrik Nánási’s conducting dutifully ploughs through Bizet’s score. Ekaterina Semenchuk offers an adequate Carmen,
not especially seductive or fiery; decently sung but with little dynamic variation. By the end, she merely drops her ring pathetically at Don José’s feet, as if she were past caring. Carlo Ventre is a stolid José, belting out his Flower Song inelegantly, while an out-of-sorts Carlos Álvarez roars his way through the Toreador Song, clinging on to the final note for dear life. The crowd applauds wildly.
Irina Lungu offers a decent Micaëla who rises well to the challenges of ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’, almost Mirella Freni-like in her creamy upper range, making it the musical highlight of an otherwise undistinguished evening.