This 2 DVD set was made at a July 2003 Verona Arena performance of 'Carmen' staged by Franco Zeffirelli starring mostly young, attractive, not-well-known singers in an overtly video-friendly production. Lots of close-ups, lots of camera movement, lots of excitement onstage both from the expert video direction by George Blume and from Zeffirelli's always animated direction. Costumes and scenery are lavish and even in close-up look almost real. It's a fairly traditional production with a few unique touches. And at least one anachronism: when Zuñiga, at the end of Act II, is bound and blindfolded by the gypsies, one of the women lights a cigarette for him and it's a filter-tip!
Musical direction is by the veteran French conductor, Alain Lombard. He makes a few odd choices of tempi (as in the entr'acte between Acts I & II) but overall this is a neatly shaped performance, a little on the fast side but which slows down to allow for the overt eroticism of the performances of both Carmen (Russian mezzo Marina Domashenko, a movie-star beautiful woman in her late 20s) and the swaggering Escamillo (American bass-baritone, Raymond Aceto, a hunk and the possessor of the best French accent in the cast). Domashenko has a lushly beautiful and very well-managed voice with just enough edge to give her Carmen more than a touch of menace. Aceto has an attractive voice, and his acting is quite good, but he sometimes, particularly during his entrance aria, sings just a hair behind the beat. The earnest Don José is sung by Italian tenor Marco Berti, who has the vocal heft and squillo for this demanding role but can sing tenderly, as in his scenes with Micaëla. (He does, however, like most tenors these days, sing the final upward scale of the Flower Song with a crescendo, ignoring Bizet's careful instruction to end it softly.) During the finale of Act III and the confrontation outside the corrida in Act IV he sings with dramatic fire and the voice rings out heroically. Micaëla is sung by Russian soprano Maya Dashuk, another stunningly beautiful young woman with a purely produced lyrical sound. She has a larger voice than most Micaëlas of my experience, and consequently during her aria in Act III, 'Je dis, que rien ne m'épouvante,' and the duet that follows, she comes across as not just some simple country girl, but a young woman with more spunk than is generally given the character. I frankly rather liked that; I always recall Beverly Sills once saying in a broadcast interview that Micaëla is the second-most passive soprano role in the repertoire (Elsa, in 'Lohengrin,' taking the prize in that category), but she doesn't seem so passive here, and after all she did climb those mountains to find Don José in the smugglers' lair and bring him home to his dying mother. This Micaëla is not simply a cipher with two lovely bits to sing.
The secondary roles are mostly well-taken. Dancaïro (Marco Camastra) and Remendado (Antonio Feltracco) have distinctive voices and play well off each other. Frasquita (Cristina Pastorello) and Mercédès (Milena Josipovic) more than hold their own with Carmen in the Card Trio in Act III. The only weak singer among the cast is the fellow who sang Zuñiga. I was glad that he passed from the scene at the end of Act II, filter-tip and all.
In summary, then, this is a very attractive performance with world-class production values, believable singing actors, almost all with excellent voices. It does not compare directly with Zeffirelli's and Francesco Rosi's 1984 film of the opera with Plácido Domingo and Julia Migenes in the starring roles; that production was 'opened up' and conveys much more of the story's 'blood and sand' than is possible in a staged production. The film replaces the familiar Guiraud recitatives with the original spoken French dialog; the recitatives are mostly retained in the present production. I have not seen any of the other DVDs of 'Carmen' that are available and thus cannot make any comparisons with them.
I thoroughly enjoyed this DVD, found the drama to be riveting and the musical presentation on a par with any I've ever encountered. Recommended.
TT=150 mins, 2 DVDs