The Met’s cast fires on all cylinders in Carrie Cracknell’s first-rate truck stop Carmen

United StatesUnited States Bizet, Carmen: Soloists Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Daniele Rustioni (conductor). Transmitted Live in HD (directed by Gary Halvorson) from New York to the Avenue Cinema, Belfast. 27.1.2024. (RB)

Aigul Akhmetshina as Carmen © Ken Howard/Met Opera

Production – Carrie Cracknell
Set designer – Michael Levine
Costume designer – Tom Scutt
Lighting designer – Guy Hoare
Projection designer – Rocafilm / Roland Horvath
Choreographer – Ann Yee

Live in HD Host – Matthew Polenzani

Carmen – Aigul Akhmetshina
Micaëla – Angel Blue
Don José – Piotr Beczała
Escamillo – Kyle Ketelsen
Frasquita – Sydney Mancasola
Mercédès – Briana Hunter
Le Dancaire – Michael Adams
Morales – Benjamin Taylor
Zuniga – Wei Wu

The distinguished English theatre and film director, Carrie Cracknell, is making her Metropolitan Opera debut in this new modern-day production of Bizet’s Carmen. Cracknell’s focus is on contemporary issues at the heart of the opera including violence against women, abusive labour structures and the desire to break through societal boundaries. She is supported by a powerhouse cast of soloists including the stunning 27-year-old mezzo-soprano, Aigul Akhmetshina, in the title role of Carmen.

Kyle Ketelsen’s Escamillo arrives in his red sports car © Ken Howard/Met Opera

Cracknell transfers the action from nineteenth-century Seville to a twenty-first century town in the American Southwest, somewhere along the border with Mexico. In the opening act a high wire fence separates the workers in the cigarette factory from the crowd. In the second act Carmen and her friends are seen partying in the trailer of a very large truck. A backdrop of flickering LED lights and revolving wheels create the illusion of the truck moving. Escamillo is a rodeo rider rather than a toreador and he arrives in a red sports car. In Act III Cracknell replaces the wild spot in the mountains specified in the libretto with a truck stop and one of the trucks appears to be on its side. In the final act a metallic amphitheatre becomes a rodeo arena, and it is here that Carmen meets her fate. Following an angry exchange, José kills her with a baseball bat rather than the knife specified in the libretto.

I liked Cracknell’s overall conception of the opera and many of the ideas which she brings to the production. Over the last few years, large numbers of Spanish speaking migrants have tried to cross the border of the US with Mexico. This production showed relatively deprived migrant factory workers trying to escape from their surroundings and smuggling contraband into the US. The hostile military presence at the border showed the level of hostility facing these people. During the Prelude and the entr’actes Roland Horvath’s monochrome visual images were projected on to the screen. These reinforced the idea that Carmen and her friends were trapped by their own social and economic circumstances. This production was effective in illuminating these contemporary issues and giving a voice to these people.

Having said that, there was scope for Cracknell to develop some of these ideas more. Issues around male machismo and violence against women can be seen in every production of Carmen. I was not convinced Cracknell’s production added anything new to what had already been said. Michael Levine’s sets created a sombre dark atmosphere, but some were not always as inspiring as they might be: I was not convinced the truck stop in Act III enhanced or illuminated the drama. Some of the Tom Scutt’s costume choices were inspired particularly the decision to dress Carmen in cut-off wrangler shorts and turquoise cowboy boots and Escamillo in black leather and chaps. However, Micaëla’s costume was bland in comparison and there was nothing particularly eye-catching in the rest of the cast’s costumes.

Aigul Akhmetshina was absolutely terrific in the role of Carmen. She was flirtatious and seductive with Don José but also fiery, assertive and defiant when she needed to be. Her Carmen was open and free spirited, unwilling to be tied down or to accept the hand which life had dealt her. She brought a voluptuous tone and shimmering sensuality to the famous Habanera. The subsequent Seguidilla was beguiling and vivacious with the ornamentation elegantly handled. Akhmetshina worked well and blended beautifully with her bandit friends. The group danced along to ‘Les tringles des sistres tintaient’ in Act II and really captured the life affirming joy of the music. Piotr Beczała portrayal of José was almost pitch perfect. He did a brilliant job showing the dramatic trajectory of the character from his initial infatuation with Carmen, the conflicting emotions associated with neglecting his army duties and his obsessive jealousy and descent into violence. Beczała brought warmth and tenderness to ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetee’ and enormous power and feelings of rage in his final confrontation with Carmen. On this occasion, Beczała’s high notes did not always seem as effortless as they usually are although, overall, the vocal line was very well handled.

I was not entirely convinced by Angel Blue’s portrayal of Micaëla. She came across as a rather tepid love rival for Don Jose’s affections and dramatically this portrayal lacked focus. Blue’s handling of the vocal line, however, was another matter and she produced some of the best singing of the evening. Her Act III aria, ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ was an impassioned, voluptuous tour de force which deservedly brought the house down. Kyle Ketelsen captured the swaggering Escamillo to perfection: at various points we saw him strutting around and taking selfies with other cast members. Her gave a virile, resonant rendition of the famous Toreador’s Song and made it sound fresh and invigorating.

The rest of the cast all acquitted themselves well. The ensemble numbers featuring Carmen and her bandit friends were an absolute delight. The Met ‘s chorus were firing on all cylinders throughout the evening and gave a stirring rendition of the big set piece numbers in the opera.

Daniele Rustioni ensured cast, chorus and orchestra remained on track. In the overture I was struck by the freshness and vitality of the rhythms and Rustioni’s eye for detail. The pacing of the material was well judged, and careful thought had clearly been given to Bizet’s shifting textures and sonorities. Rustioni managed to coax some very beautiful playing from the strings and woodwind during the entr’actes to the opera. He also ensured there was a good balance of sound between the soloists and orchestra and ensured the orchestral accompaniment was flexible when required.

Overall, this was a first-rate production of Carmen from a cast firing on all cylinders.

Robert Beattie

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