* Notes *
The Metropolitan Opera's reprise of its 2009 production of Carmen, directed by Richard Eyre, updates the story from Prosper Mérimée's 1830s setting to the time of the Spanish Civil War. This concept is not new: Frank Corsaro imposed it on the low-budget New York City Opera production back in 1984, which was reprised several times. I saw the NYCO production in the late 90s, and an unfortunate parallel must be drawn: one has the impression that the updating is done only to save money by substituting drab costumes and sets for what should be a rich visual spectacle. Audiences "listen with their eyes" as well as their ears, as the saying goes, and in this case the visuals cast a pall on the entire opera, with some exceptions, to be noted below.
One exception to the dreariness of the color palette of this production was the striking blood-red slash streaking downward through the fire curtain as one entered the auditorium, which found an admirable symmetry in the gown in which Carmen meets her fate at the end of the opera: a black lace dress (trajes de faraleas) with an identical red streak down the front, something akin to a lightening bolt.
To this listener, the performance was murdered in its cradle by the impossibly fast tempi chosen by conductor, Edward Gardner, in his Met debut. The opening overture was driven to such an extreme that the only the marvelous Met orchestra could have kept up. The result was a depressing lack of rhythmic drive, absence of phrasing, loss of clarity of instrumentation and ragged ensemble. This was particularly obvious in the third act, and the failure of coordination verged on outright disaster. Perhaps Gardner was told by management to keep his eye on the clock, as overtime starts at midnight. Seated relatively closely to the stage, I could not discern a prompter's box, and absent a prompter, and even with TV monitors, the cast displayed almost telepathic capacity with which to maintain minimal coordination with the pit. I believe this to be one of the curses of our time, the confusion of speed with energy.
The admirable Met chorus seemed underpowered in this performance, except for lyric passages which were sung with great beauty and balance. The children's chorus was brilliantly energized and forceful. I often marvel at the capacity of a child's voice to carry in a house the size of the Met, an object lesson to adult singers and to voice teachers alike.
We had, once again, the ever present Met turntable set design; rotating vertical cuffs which serve in their various permutations as cigarette factory, tavern, gypsy hideout and bullring. Peter Mumford"s lighting design washed the stage in a dim haze throughout the evening. Piercing, brilliant Spanish sunlight was nowhere to be seen, even in the final act, except at the moment where Jose murders Carmen, when the sky momentarily turns blood red.
The Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča possesses a voice of great beauty, graced with a secure technique and a powerful top. She is also blessed with an extremely attractive physical presence and the ability to move well on stage. However, one wished for more risk-taking, more earthiness. Her delivery undercut Carmen's predatory sexuality by substituting finely formed vocalism for dramatic power. It seemed that she either lacked, or was unwilling to dig into, the chest register where the music and drama require it. This is a great challenge for a good singer: how to go beyond certain technical boundaries without risking vocal health. I would love to hear this singer in other repertory, Mozart, Strauss or Mahler, where her cool Baltic temperament and vocal gift might be heard to better effect.
Tenor Brandon Jovanovich's Don José was vocally gratifying and visually handsome. He possesses a voice with the sufficient "blade" (as Colin Davis used to call it) with which to fill the large Met auditorium, and he finished his Flower Song with a beautiful voix-mixte B-flat. He overcame an initial impression of physical stiffness and unease and built his delivery to fine dramatic effect in the last act. On the minus side, he was not served well at the opera's conclusion by the costume designer, who draped him in what looked like a monk's robe with a huge cross dangling across his chest – a too literal take on his line to Carmen: "laisse moi te sauver." A fine bit of staging, having José slam Carmen into a wall, dazing her as he pleads with her not to desert him, was spoiled by an unsupported piece of the set which tottered comically upon impact.
Of the remaining cast, John Relyea's Escamillo was to this listener a disappointment in every respect except one, his dashing physical presence. I have greatly admired this singer in other roles, particularly, Faust in Berlioz's Damnation of Faust. Here, however, his ample bass-baritone was hampered by a swallowed delivery and weak top. Nicole Cabell as Micaëla, while sweet of voice, seemed underpowered in the Met's cavernous auditorium although she played the role with sincerity. At the risk of belaboring the point, one has to again fault the conductor, who put Cabell into a rhythmic vice in her signature aria "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante." His dictatorial, metronomic beat robbed this singer of any chance to employ expressive rubato or flow. She wisely delivered her high B front and center, figuratively wresting the baton from Edward Gardner's hands and giving herself a chance to make a true impact. Michael Todd Simpson as Moralès and Keith Miller as Zuniga were effective. Joyce El-Khoury (in her Met debut) as Frasquita, Eve Gigliotti as Mercédès and their gypsy cohorts didn' t stand a chance vocally, given Gardner' s whirlwind tempi, although they executed their choreographic and dramatic duties with expertise.
A special mention should be made of the beautiful and expressive dancing of Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey, and of the beautiful rendition of the Act III Entr'acte by members of the Met orchestra.
* Tattling *
The Met audience was better-behaved than usual, although one man behind me insisted on humming alone with the "Toreador Song" in the overture. Two women of a certain age insisted on exchanging remarks despite nasty looks from UO and from Miss LCU. There was the usual, inevitable standing ovation by the audience members who chose not to bolt for the doors the minute the show ended. How one longs for European audiences, who rarely give standing ovations, except for performances of extraordinary "once-in-a-lifetime" impact.