It is often said that we are the sum total of the decisions we make in our lives. Indeed, when Don José sheds his honor, his soul and even his mother for the beguiling gypsy, audiences generally hold him accountable for his poor choices even while dutifully mindful of the nature and power of his addiction. The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Carmen, starring Elina Garanca as one of the most vocally stimulating and visually alluring Carmens in recent memory, places Don José's self-destructive decisions into proper perspective: Under Garanca spell, this man had about as much a chance of staving off disaster as the bull in the toreador's arena. And he's not alone: By the second act I was prepared to give it all up (mother included) and follow Garanca to a remote gypsy hideaway in the mountains.
The plot of Bizet's Carmen centers around an army corporal, Don José (Roberto Alagna), who is torn between an infatuation with the manipulative femme fatale, Carmen (Garanca ) and the redemptive forces in his life, represented by the innocent Micaëla (Barbara Frittoli).
Garanca's Carmen is a three-dimensional, hands-on character who uses not only body and voice but also props, staging and dancing to convey her irresistible persona. When arrested and placed in the hands of Don José, Garanca uses a set of handcuffs and a rope tethered to him to stage a powerfully suggestive Seguidilla, inviting her captor to allow her to escape and accompany her to Lillas Pastia's Tavern. At the tavern, Garanca dances wildly on the tables during the rowdy gypsy song of seduction (Les tringles des sistres tintaient), and later, when Don José enters the tavern, Garanca teases him (during the Castanets Dance) with a lap-dance.
Curiously, Garanca downplays her character's seductive demeanor (some men will no doubt disagree with this) and aims instead to project herself as a poised, confident manipulator — one who has only one talent in life, but knows when and how to use it to her advantage. When Don José pays her only scant attention early in the first act, Garanca simply shifts into a higher gear and scoops her unwitting passenger on-board. Similarly, in the famed Habanera (sung while Garanca casually begins washing her shirt and feet) she delivers the initial verse with an aloofness that lay somewhere between boredom and "been-there-done-that." Only at the repeat of the verse does Garanca then turn up the heat, and to great effect.
If Garanca's singing had been only mediocre, her acting and stage presence would surely have carried the day. This was however a consummate performance such as one always hopes to find in live opera, but only rarely experiences. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Latvian mezzo-soprano (fitted here in a long-haired, curly black wig) was in beautiful voice Saturday afternoon, with dark mezzo that was rich and full in the low and mid-registers, and bright and radiant in the high register. Still, it would be difficult to separate Garanca's vocal prowess from her character's mannerisms and staging in this performance, which for all practical purposes were joined at the hip. Vocal inflections during phrases melted from note-to-note during the Habanera, and a pervasive, underlying sensuality accompanied virtually everything she sang.
As the ill-fated Don José, Roberto Alagna was strong in voice and sang with a dark and rich lyric tenor that breathed warmth and substance. His great second-act aria, the Flower Song (La fleur que tu m'avais jeteé), where he reveals to Carmen that the flower she had given him was all that kept him alive during his prison term following her escape, was incredibly beautiful (although dramatically unconvincing). In spite of the fact that his voice began to tire by the end of the third act, Alagna gave a commanding performance Saturday afternoon.
Alagna's acting abilities in the first three acts were adequate, but nothing more. I was hoping to see a conflicted Don José agonizing over two very different worlds — an exciting one dictated by compulsion, and a boring one leading to redemption. Instead, I got from Alagna that familiar boyish grin, championed by George W. Bush, that belied the severity of the situation. When Carmen, with Don José's complicity, escapes arrest at the end of Act I, an angry Captain Zuniga (Keith Miller) confronts Alagna, but sees little more than a look of contrition such as on the face of a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Happily, Alagna hunkered down in the fourth act and produced at least some degree of sturm und drang, but even here the angst-ridden corporal never appeared truly menacing (which perhaps explains Garanca's look of complete astonishment when, at the end of the opera, he does indeed stab her).
Barbara Frittoli, as Micaëla, delivered her signature third-act aria (Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante) in handsome fashion, with a warm and satisfying lyric soprano and sizeable projection. Frittoli's vocal delivery in the first-act nostalgic duo with Alagna (Ma mère, je la vois) was almost as attractive, in spite of her propensity for sailing well-above the intended pitch during sustained high-notes. As an actress, however, the Italian soprano left much to be desired.
Frittoli's monochromatic facial expressions (she does move her eyebrows upon occasion) did little to project the demeanor of a frightened, innocent peasant girl wandering far from home to locate an elusive Don José. Waiting outside the cigarette factory in Act I, Frittoli appeared neither alarmed nor vulnerable when a creepy assortment of soldiers begin to undress her with their eyes. Micaëla is the hero's final hope for redemption, and the audience is rooting for her to succeed: It's a shame that Frittoli couldn't muster any meaningful effort upon which the crowd could pin its hopes.
As a last-minute replacement for the ailing Mariusz Kwiecien, Teddy Tahu Rhodes provided a pleasant surprise in his serendipitous appearance as the toreador, Escamillo. Working on just three-hours' advance notice (he got the call Saturday at 10 a.m.), there was hardly sufficient time for the New Zealand-born baritone to grow nervous. Rhodes simply jumped into his bullfighter's trousers, which — like the singer's charismatic delivery throughout Saturday's performance — proved a comfortable fit.
Rhodes' tall, slender build and dashing presence produced all the right looks for this role, which is necessary to lend credence to Don José's rage of jealousy in the tragic final act. His baritone may more accurately be labeled a lyric bass-baritone because of the pronounced depth of his low notes, although the quality of tone does tend to thin out a bit in his higher register. Rhodes' strong delivery of the testosterone-charged Toreador Song in Act II filled every crevices of the theater, and his cocky self-assurance helped bring his character to life.
Keith Miller looked and acted the part as the sinister captain of the Guardia Civil, Zuniga, with a commanding stage presence that drew (and maintained) the attention of the listener. Miller, whose looks and mannerisms oddly resemble Yul Brynner during the late actor's prime, projected his role's bullying demeanor to perfection, with a rich bass-baritone sturdy enough to soar easily above the chorus during the frenetic opening-act fight scene. When, in Act II, the unctuous captain arrogantly asks the seductress Carmen why she would settle for a mere soldier (Don José) when she could have an officer, the walls of the tavern all but oozed oil from its murky rafters.
There were some large efforts among the smaller roles in this production. Mezzo-sopranos Sandra Piques Eddy and Elizabeth Caballero, as Carmen's gypsy cohorts Mercédès and Frasquita, respectively, provided an impressive pair of vocal efforts (as well as a captivating visual presence) during their charming duet in the third-act Card Scene, as they beseech the cards to reveal their future lovers and destinies. Eddy and Caballero also forged a powerful vocal presence in the stunning quintet (Nous avons en tête une affaire) during the second-act tavern scene, which for me was the singularly most memorable number in this performance.
Richard Eyre's new production of Carmen fast-forwards Bizet's setting from 1820s Spain roughly a century ahead, to the travail of the Spanish Civil War. While the historical conflict is muted in this production, there is a tacit understanding that the gypsy smugglers have earned a degree of respectability as left-wing, freedom fighting Republicans battling the oppressive regime of Generalissimo Franco.
This is Eyre's third effort at opera (behind La Traviata and Nozze di Figaro), and his direction of the many crowd scenes of cigarette girls, children, smugglers and dancers reveals the unmistakable touches of a seasoned veteran. The British stage director's prior work in London and Broadway theaters came to good use in the production, particularly during the eye-popping staging of the frenzied action at Lillas Pastia's Tavern during Act II — from Carmen's table-top dancing during the Triangle Song to the spectacle of Escamillo's rowdy Toreador Song.
TV Director Brian Large's well-synchronized camerawork appeared to capture the characters' facial expressions at all the dramatically correct moments, and his transitions from close-ups to wide-angled scenes (particularly those involving crowds) were well-orchestrated. Understandably, Large's camera rarely wandered far from Garanca's irresistible gaze and posture.
Set and Costume Designer Rob Howell's rotating circular floor, occasionally resembling the inside of a large microwave oven, yields several staging resources, from the initial public square in Seville (Act I) to the grimy interior of the Lillas Pastia's Tavern (Act II), and from the foggy mountainous gypsy hideaway (Act III) to the exterior of the bullfighting ring (Act IV).
Christopher Wheeldon's choreography of the foot-stomping flamenco dancers in the Act II tavern scene, and the Broadway-like dance routine by Garanca and her two gypsy pals at the smugglers' cave in Act III, added a healthy dash of Spanish spices to an already spicy-hot production. Wheeldon's pas de deux routines (with dancers Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey) during the entre'acts preceding the first and third acts, while superfluous to the storyline, were visually appealing.
Peter Mumford's lighting complemented not only Howell's sets but also the moods associated with characters — from the dingy, pre-dawn bluish hues of the smuggler's mountain cave hideaway to the crimson fog that engulfs the stage with the color of Carmen's blood at the final curtain.
The youthful and energetic French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin crafted a rendition of Bizet's colorful, ethnocentric score that bordered on fast (occasionally wild) tempos that generally favored gypsy-style exuberance over nuance of ensemble detail and polish.
Then again, no tempo this season has proven too fast for this Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to handle, as could be seen in the cleanly executed exhibitionism of the celebrated overture. The orchestral entre'acts gave the listener much to savor from the Met Orchestra, as well — from the sharply edged dotted-rhythmic precision in the unison bassoon section solo that opened Act II, to the dreamy meditative flute and harp duo in Act III, and finally to the sparkling élan of the Spanish rhythms in Act IV.
Anthony Piccolo prepared a well-disciplined Children's Chorus that delivered its ensemble-work with spunk and enthusiasm, and it didn't take close-up camera-work to see the looks of joy on these kids' faces. I especially enjoyed the march that accompanies the changing of the guard at the entrance to the tobacco factory in Act I, where the children sang, tutti ensemble, with finesse — and intelligible French diction.
By David Abrams
Photos: Josh Haner/The New York Times
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