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Elina Garanča;  as Carmen [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
17 Jan 2010

Carmen at the MET

Elina Garanča conceals her gleaming gold tresses beneath a curly black wig to sing Carmen.

Georges Bizet: Carmen

Carmen: Elina Garanča; Micaela: Barbara Frittoli; Don José: Roberto Alagna; Escamillo: Mariusz Kwiecien. Production by Richard Eyre. Metropolitan Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Performance of January 12, 2010.

Above: Elina Garanča; as Carmen

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.


Nearly everything else is on display, from the legs she bathes shamelessly while singing the “Habañera” to the shoulders she bares — in daylight hours? in Spain? — in her ruffled Act IV gown. As the Latvian mezzo soprano is a beautiful woman, a fine actress and dancer with a voice of great warmth and sheen — and fill-the-house power when she chooses to unleash it — no one could object to her performance as Bizet’s eternal Gypsy. True, she is on the sexually aggressive side among Carmens and I find more convincing the casual approach of Olga Borodina, unimpressed by the ogling men around her. Borodina’s Carmen seemed her own woman, making her own choices, one of which might be love. This seems a less cliché way of playing the character. Most Carmens work too hard, as if men’s opinions mattered to them, and Garanča, though with her looks she hardly has to work — anyone would stare — edges towards that sort of show-off Carmen. I presume she does things like snap her cleavage from stage center because she has been directed to do so and because the performance was the camera-dress, the last before the live high-definition telecast.

>Kwiecien_Escamillo.gifMariusz Kwiecien as Escamillo

Nor did Garanča’s self-conscious sex appeal get in the way of her singing: The “Habañera” was a parade, the “Seguidilla” intimate, the dance for Don José very hot, the fortune-telling very earthy — crouched over her cards, lacking any sort of glamour, she held every eye and ear in the house. She was not only the centerpiece but the only vocally irreproachable star of the performance. Roberto Alagna, who used to be a first-rate Don José, sounded strained, flat on exposed notes (such as the last of “Dragon d’Alcala”), and ill-adjusted to register breaks, though of course he had the best French of the evening. His acting was passionate, and he pulled himself together for a murderous final confrontation. Barbara Frittoli had trouble placing her notes in the Act I duet with Alagna, sounding uncertain and lacking force, though she brought down the house in Act III. Mariusz Kwiecien looked elegant as Escamillo, but sang with that rough bark he often uses these days, instead of the wonderful — often wonderfully sinister — leggiero sound he makes when singing Mozart. Small roles were filled ably and, in the case of Keith Miller, a commanding Zuniga, rather better than that.

I’ve been bitching for some time about new Met productions that are not only weird but whimsically so, so that future performers will be straitjacketed into their weirdness; so when a new production like this comes along of one of the repertory staples, a production that could easily be inhabited by the varying interpretations of many singers, I’d be rank ungrateful to complain that it lacks a point of view. Richard Eyre has chosen to tell Bizet’s story — not his own irrelevant story — in handsome stage pictures with no interpolated funny business, and I applaud. Even posing for a photographer in Act IV comes at a moment when it does not interrupt the music and the character — Escamillo — might believably pose for a photographer.

CARMEN_Frittoli_and_Alagna_.gif Barbara Frittoli as Micaela and Roberto Alagna as Don José

What did irritate me a bit — but this is part of the standard approach to the classics in our era — is that the direction has tightened the screws of sexual and other kinds of brutality. Soldiers cannot casually flirt with naïve Micaela — they threaten to rape her the moment she appears, and she narrowly escapes. The smugglers do not gallantly tie Zuniga up in their den — they torture him a bit just for the hell of it, while singing the gallant phrases of the superb Meilhac and Halévy libretto. The period of the piece has been advanced, it seems, to the era of Spain’s Second Republic, just before the Civil War, and perhaps we are to understand the tension between soldiers and civilians, smugglers and the law, as a foretaste of the horrors to come — I don’t know.

Don Giovanni, portrayed as a town of gray and red brick. The period is not a great one for showy costumes, and even the toreadors don’t shine much — one sees more elegant suits of lights on Halloween. Carmen’s Act IV number with its trail of ruffles on the floor seems designed solely so that Garanča can look helpless the when groveling Alagna pounces upon it — an effective moment that did make us gasp.

CARMEN_Alagna_and_Garanca_1.gifElina Garanča as Carmen and Roberto Alagna as Don José

Two dancers, perhaps representing archetypal Male and Female or Yang and Yin or the infertile stage director and his Muse or a desperate attempt to give Christopher Wheeldon something to do, make a nuisance of themselves during the preludes to Acts I and III.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted with terrific verve and snap, and I would have preferred to concentrate on his music-making when those dancers were making such a spectacle of themselves. The Act III prelude, in particular, is such a lovely, graceful mountain pastorale and leads so perfectly into the scene of shattering bliss that follows that staging it seems wildly intrusive.

John Yohalem

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