New Met Carmen: A Mixed Blend

03/11/2014

United StatesUnited States Bizet, Carmen (Met Opera HD Broadcast): Soloists, Metropolitan Opera and Chorus, Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), New York, NY, 1.11.2014 (RDA)

The new Metropolitan Opera production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen (which I saw in the HD broadcast, with an encore performance on November 5, 2014) is a mixed bag of good and bad, original and trite, surprising and numbingly boring. These days, stage directors are fond of moving the setting, time and place of great operas to eras, locales and locations far removed from those specified in the originals. Thus, when Bizet and his librettist, Henri Meilhac, designate mid-19th-century sun-drenched Seville and its environs, Richard Eyre and his designer, Rob Howell, give us a somber, sunless, drab 1930’s Seville during the rise of the Fascist era, neither illuminating nor serving the drama and the music.

When the text calls for a plaza in front of a cigarette factory, the production team gives us the guardia civil headquarters on an obligatory turntable that spins endlessly and pointlessly to take us outside to what looks like a bombed out site with a trapdoor. From this emerged the chorus girls and Carmen, like a legion of female Spanish Nibelungs coming up for air, all identically uniformed except for mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, who first appears in a flashy outfit unsuitable for someone working in a sweatshop.

The costuming, for the most part, does the singers no favors, managing to look unbecoming in the case of most of Carmen’s dresses, or downright out of place. The gypsies in the Lilas Pastias tavern (and later in the mountain scene) appear in colorful regalia that could work for a Spanish-themed costume ball, but not for sweaty, dirty smugglers on the job. And so it goes, in the brave new world of modern-dress-as-you-are productions, in which logic, common sense and just plain good taste are thrown to the winds of whimsy.

On the plus side, Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado led the Met orchestra, chorus and soloists in an impassioned performance. Rumanian soprano Anita Hartig all but stole the show as a vocally and dramatically excellent Micaela, singing gorgeously and acting soulfully from beginning to end.

The singers of the supporting roles also earned the top honors: Kiri Deonarine, a lively and fresh-voiced Frasquita; Jennifer Jonson-Cano an alluring Mercedes; baritone Malcom Mackenzie, a very good bad-guy Dancaire; and tenor Eduardo Valdes, a full-voiced and menacing Remendado. Bass Keith Miller was very effective as Zuniga, and baritone John Moore, an excellent singing actor, did well as Morales.  Bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov delivered a vocally and dramatically effective Spanish matador.

Aleksandr Antonenko, a true dramatic tenor and an honest actor, is having a good career doing Otello and Canio all over the operatic map. But Carmen‘s Don Jose, like so many French roles that are neither poissson nor poulet, calls for a singer capable of spinning a nice mezza-voce in the duet with Micaela and in the Flower Song, and then opening up to full throttle in the mountain scene and in the final encounter with Carmen. Antonenko nearly reached both those bars, but came to grief at the end of “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” with the notoriously difficult ending that demands a pianissimo high B-flat. He later sounded noticeably tired in Act III, mercifully recovering for the scene outside the bullfight arena.

Anita Rachvelishvili is not an ideal Carmen. By her own admission (to Joyce Di Donato in an intermission interview) she finds the “Habanera” very difficult to sing, and it was in that ariaCarmen’s firstwhere she went musically astray and off-pitch. Her voice lacked both the upper range luster and the contralto coloring at the low end that one wants to hear in the role, and in key moments in which she needed volume she instead displayed an uncontrolled tremolo. The Georgian singer played all the dark aspects of Carmendefiant, impatient, bellicose to almost everybodybut Mérimée’s gypsy, the basis for Bizet’s gypsy, is a girl in her 20’s and joie de vivre must be there, even as she faces imminent death.

In Peter Gelb’s opinion, transposing Bizet’s Carmen, Mozart’s Figaro, Offenbach’s Hoffmann and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta into 20th-century settings equals increased ticket revenues from new and younger audiences. There was nothing in this most recent foray that seems to signal that change of sea, either in my sparingly peopled movie theatre, nor in the Met audience seen in the HD performance, which appeared to be no younger than ours in Cincinnati.

Rafael de Acha

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