Opera Reviews
25 June 2024
Untitled Document

Piotr Beczala impresses in his debut as Don José

by Moore Parker
Bizet: Carmen
Vienna State Opera
23 January 2018

The paramount interest in this 159th showing of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1978 production was a new Don José - not just to Vienna, but for the world stage. With stellar showings of Faust and Roméo to his credit, Piotr Beczala has now undertaken his first stage performance in Carmen. Belying his age (51) in all respects, the Polish-born tenor (now claimed by some Viennese as “their home boy”) bagged a deserved triumph - vocally in top form, and embodying the character with fine nuance and credibility. 

Intelligent pacing, pure lyricism and fine musicality remain Beczala’s trademarks and while the voice is not as rich as Domingo in his heyday (or anything approaching the dramatic capacity of a Vickers or McCracken) Beczala built his character effortlessly from scene to scene, complete with numerous staging details I don’t recall from earlier casts. He chose a full-throated forte for the Flower Song’s B-flat (in concert he has chosen other options) and sealed his success with a desperately passionate final act.

The evening further marked role debuts in the house for a number of the other soloists including the title part, with the multi-faceted ensemble member Margarita Gritskova now presenting her tried-and-tested Carmen at her home base. The role is notoriously elusive, and Gritskova chose an essentially elemental route utilising striking, sultry looks, oozing sensuality and guttersnipe ruthlessness to forge her brassy gypsy. She wears her costumes superbly and moves with natural grace - an attribute not always reflected in the vocal line or interpretive subtlety, or in French delivery which was taken somewhat liberally at times. Considering the occasion, it’s quite possible that finesse ranked second to methodically aiming for blatant ace cards - and indeed, in surviving discourse with the pit. 

Olga Bezsmertna gave her first Micaëla in the house in a fine performance - albeit one which can further gain in individuality, charm, and in mid-range volume. 

As Escamillo, Carlos Álvarez was initially disadvantaged by dynamics in the pit but stalwartly delivered his bronzed, even-toned reading, which eventually won the day to underscore his nonchalantly-mature reading.

Simina Ivan played a piqued Frasquita with a penetrating top, while Margaret Plummer (in her first Mercédès) contrasted with her warm mezzo and flashing smile.

Ayk Martirossian’s newcomer Zuniga was imposing in stature and not inappropriately coarse in tone (contrasting well with Beczala’s diffident Corporal) with strong support from Orhan Yildiz (Morales), as well as Carlos Osuna and Igor Onishchenko, who were performing Remendado and Dancaire respectively for the first time here.

Conducting his first Carmen in the house, Jean-Christophe Spinosi began optimistically (to the degree that a shocking spread of the audience broke into applause half way through the prelude to Act 1) and indeed fared reasonably in the sections of the score which didn’t actively involve the stage. Otherwise, this was a nerve-wracking experience at all levels, with few moments throughout the long evening enjoying any sense of security between pit and stage - let alone providing scope for artistic evolvement. The conductor decided to avoid a solo curtain - though any expectations regarding an informed reaction from the evening’s smart-phone-bound audience would surely have been unfounded. 

Text © Moore Parker
Photo © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
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