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Performances

Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen [Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]
10 Nov 2014

The Met mounts a well sung but dramatically unconvincing ‘Carmen’

Should looks matter when casting the role of the iconic temptress for HD simulcast?

The Met mounts a well sung but dramatically unconvincing ‘Carmen’

A review by David Abrams

Above: Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen [Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]

 

Operagoers have long grown accustomed to sacrificing dramatic integrity for a rewarding musical experience. Joan Sutherland was in her ‘60s when she sang Gilda in scenes from Verdi’s Rigoletto at a Met Gala concert in 1987. Her singing brought the house down, though it’s unlikely that anyone in the theater believed this could be the title character’s teenage daughter.

In today’s era of the Met’s high definition simulcasting, it’s growing increasingly difficult for the company to conduct business as usual. Intense visual scrutiny of the cameras pressure performers to act as credibly as they sing, and to look the part of the characters they portray. Music may still rule in opera, but in Peter Gelb’s brave new world of simulcasting, seeing is believing.

Casting the full-figured Anita Rachvelishvili as the iconic temptress Carmen in the Met’s Nov. 1 HD simulcast did not do much to enhance the dramatic integrity of the story. The Georgian mezzo-soprano has the voice for the role, to be sure — with a handsome middle range and sufficient weight in her pedal tones to add chills down the spine when she flips the fortune card and reads aloud, “La mort!” What was lacking in Rachvelishvili’s performance was the raw sexual magnetism required to bring the character Carmen to life.

When Richard Eyre’s production first ran in 2009, the sultry siren Elīna Garanĉa played the title role. Here, both singing and looks were equally convincing. Granted, Garanĉa’s unforgettable portrayal is a tough act to follow. But even ignoring the inevitable comparisons to the prior production, there was simply too little in Rachvelishvili’s performance to convey her character’s wild, dangerous and sexually alluring side.

The Habanera (sung sweetly though hardly seductively) fell flat, while the Seguidilla generated insufficient heat to make plausible Don José’s complicity in Carmen’s escape — for which he risks imprisonment. Nor was there sufficient electricity in Rachvelishvili’s dance sequence during the supposedly eroticTriangle Song at Lillas Pastia’s Tavern. As the pace of the music reached boiling point, I was sure she'd climb onto one of the tables and dance, as had Garanĉa. She did not. The little dancing we did see from her (on terra firma) would not likely have gotten her past the first round of Dancing With The Stars.

Ultimately, theater audiences across 69 countries had to be content with Rachvelishvili’s formidable vocal effort — a pleasure, indeed, but one perhaps better suited to radio broadcast than visual simulcast.

Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Don José, a bit stiff throughout the first act, grew increasingly convincing as the obsessed lover, driven to extremes over his ill-fated passion for Carmen.

In José we must sense the ambivalence of a once-proud soldier who is faced with a choice between a safe but boring life (with plain-Jane Micaëla) and an exciting but dangerous life (with by the gypsy Carmen). When he does not choose wisely, José must be seen as a pathetic loser whose self-respect begins to dwindle away — much like the money of an inveterate gambler at the dice tables. In short, José's life has gone to craps. Antonenko made this breakdown believable, and by the end of the third act he morphs into a fanatical, menacing stalker.

As a singer, Antonenko gave two performances: the one in the first half of the opera, where his voice lacked subtlety and he frequently clipped the ends of his phrases to wet his lips (such as in the first act duet with Micaëla); and the second half, where he found his voice in all its glory and used his strong spinto tenor to add body to the emotional outbursts. I shall remember him for the latter.

Simulcast viewers who missed the opportunity to hear Anita Hartig as Mimi in La Bohème last April (she took ill and had to be replaced) got their chance to hear the Romanian soprano play José's steadfast fiancée, Micaëla.

Hartig’s exquisite delivery of her signature Act Three aria Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante, sung as her character makes a last ditch attempt to free José from the grip of the deadly Carmen, was the singular most moving number in the production. Hartig's tender lyric soprano captured all the nuances of expression Bizet has to offer in this work. Her breathtaking decrescendo on the aria's final words, protégez moi, Seigneur (Protect me, O Lord), brought a lump to my throat. The profuse applause from the Met Opera audience at the end of the number said it all.

As the flamboyant toreador, a handsome and self-assured Ildar Abdrazakov at once captured the testosterone-charged persona of Escamillo — in looks as well as voice. Abdrazakov's Toreador Song at Lillas Pastia’s Tavern in Act Two was the highlight of an otherwise unspectacular first half of the performance. Though he tended to cheat the aria's sharply dotted-rhythms in favor of easier-to-sing triplets, Abdrazakov delivered his signature aria with a deep and meaty bass-baritone that made the listener sit up and take notice.

Keith Miller, reprising his role of Zuniga from the company's 2009 production, is an excellent actor whose dynamic onstage demeanor injects anima into the roles roles he portrays. Using his firm bass-baritone and strong visual presence, Miller crafted a strongly believable (and downright sleezy) captain of the guard.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better pair of supporting singer-actors than soprano Kiri Deonarine (Frasquita) and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano (Mercédès), as Carmen's colorful gypsy cohorts.

The dynamic duo performed exceptionally well in their ensemble numbers, such as the quick-tongued, rapid patter-like dialogue of the delightful quintet Nous avons en tête une affaire — which they articulated with great clarity of diction. (Abdrazakov could have learned much from the pair's precision singing in the crisply dotted-rhythmic figures here.) But the true tour de force came in the charming Fortune-Telling Duet from Act Three, where the gypsies playfully coax the cards into "revealing" their future lovers and destinies. This number was not only sung beautifully, but provided a captivating visual experience.

Eyre’s production team, spearheaded by Set Designer Rob Howell, once again used a rotating stage (a technique that now bears Eyre's signature). This proved useful in making smooth transitions between scenes and augmented the look and scope of the crowd scenes such as in the public square during Act One. In fact, almost everything in this production was staged effectively. I especially enjoyed the scene where the cigarette girls disembark en mass from the factory, gushing forth as would water from an open spigot.

Also visually appealing was Eyre’s staging of the gypsy smugglers’ winding mountain hideaway in Act Three, aided by Lighting Director Peter Mumford’s hushed bluish hues that hinted of the arrival of dawn. I remain at a loss, however, to understand why Eyre shifts the story from 1820s Spain to the 1930s, considering his avoidance of any tangible (or implied) connection to either the Spanish Civil War or the rise of fascism on the eve of World War Two.

Granada-born conductor Pablo Heras-Casado opted to conduct without a baton, which is hardly optimal for an orchestra the size of what’s called for in Bizet’s score. But then, the tightly disciplined Met Orchestra could probably keep it together if the the musicians could only see the conductor's eyebrows. For my tastes, Heras-Casado’s tempos too often bordered on the wild side, as if trying to keep up with a troupe of flamenco dancers high on amphetamines. I also found his direction of the Habanera to be too straightforward, resulting in a sanitized dance rhythm lacking in style and ethnic substance.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was up to task even during Heras-Casado's most outrageous tempos, and shined repeatedly in its individual efforts. Flutist Denis Bouriakov’s sublime tone in the famous Entr’acte to Act Two, accompanied mellifluously by harp, provided dancers Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey plenty of inspiration with which to shape a stunning pas de deux. Also impressive was Bouriakov’s shapely and cleanly articulated 16th notes in the Prelude to Act Three.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, augmented by a feisty and well-staged chorus of children, sounded wonderfully throughout the performance. I especially enjoyed watching the staging of the children during the first act changing of the guard scene as they mimicked the trumpets.

Live in HD Director Matthew Diamond projected the customary close-up shots of the principal characters, but this time the cameras also panned out during the large chorus numbers affording simulcast viewers a sense of size and proportion of the choruses. I thought Diamond's decision to zoom in on Rachvelishvili several times as she lay on the floor, legs spread apart waiting to engulf José, was a bit over the top. (No pun intended.)

David Abrams
CNY Café Momus


This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

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