The Met's new Carmen
Well, well... Imagine a production of Carmen with almost nothing in it that makes you cringe, at least stage-wise: no cutie-pie touches, no unlikely-looking protagonists flinging themselves unconvincingly around the stage, no over-the-top local color, no excessive pulling out of the Fate stop (except at the very end - but I'll get to that in due course). Instead, everything in the Met's new production is in its logical place, so that the whole opera makes sense as theater. Okay: the jagged, blood-red crack in the front-drop elbows us in the ribs a little too strongly, and the 1930s setting neither adds to nor detracts from the overall effect. But director Richard Eyre and set and costume designer Rob Howell have created an atmospheric, thoroughly convincing production of this much-abused work.
Elīna Garanča is a true artist, and she puts all of her artistry into the title role. She does not have the most sensual mezzo-soprano sound - there have been duskier Carmens in living memory - but the singing is so fine and the character so finely communicated in every way that it doesn't matter. Eyre has made Carmen a vulgar girl who spits bits of food on the ground, wipes her mouth on her forearm, and looks as if she doesn't bathe as often as she should, yet Garanča puts the gypsy's animal energy and bursting-at-the-seams sexuality across unmistakably.
Why does Roberto Alagna want to submit himself to the terrible strain of singing Don José? He acts capably, his French pronunciation is excellent (French is his native language), and he copes well with the less demanding passages in the role. But in the tough spots, such as the first-act duet with Micaëla and the big aria, "La fleur", in Act II, his sound is grating, at times verging on a howl. Nor were Barbara Frittoli (Micaëla) or Mariusz Kwiecien (Escamillo) at their best - at least at the performance I attended (January 8); both are fine singing actors, but Frittoli's voice was sounding a little frayed at the edges, and Kwiecien had trouble in the lower register as well as some intonation problems in Act III.
The conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, needs to take some anti-vitamin pills to keep him from jumping maniacally around the podium and gesticulating madly. He is definitely not of the less-is-more school of conducting. The orchestra musicians must watch him only when absolutely necessary, otherwise they would all suffer from motion sickness. (Remember Sir Adrian Boult's observation, to the effect that some conductors' "picturesque habit of walking about and miming the music [...] will appeal to some of the less sophisticated members of our audience. But it doesn't make matters easier for the players and singers, and I am inclined to think that it is only when he has complete control of himself that a conductor can hope to control other people.") Nevertheless, the ensemble work was good, although there were a few weird tempo choices, e.g., an insanely fast opening to the prelude to Act I, an extremely slow "Je dis" in Act III (this may have been Frittoli's choice, but she didn't always seem comfortable with it), and some wayward, and not always successful, pushing and pulling in the entr'acte-prelude to Act IV.
The only real blot on the staging, to my mind, comes at the very end of the opera. Following Carmen and Don José's final confrontation, which culminates in murder - all excellently paced here - the tenor sings, "Vous pouvez m'arrêter, c'est moi qui l'ai tuée" ("You can arrest me, I'm the one who has killed her"). Even if we did not have the specific printed instruction - "the crowd re-enters the stage" - José's words imply in an absolutely concrete way that someone other than the two protagonists must be present at that moment. Instead, in this production Don José, holding Carmen's body, sings those words to no one, after which the stage rotates and we see a bull lying dead in the corrida, surrounded by an immobile crowd. Destiny - get it? Carmen dies; the bull dies; and no one lives happily ever after. But we really don't need that hunk of heavy-handed symbolism, especially at the close of a production that has heretofore managed so beautifully to dispense with such stuff. After having been so blessedly direct with us, Mr. Eyre, why give us a lot of bull?