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Met "Carmen," at last

Weeks after the production's premiere and HD broadcast, I finally saw Richard Eyre’s new “Carmen” at the Metropolitan Opera, and found it neither quite as radical nor as powerful as I’d elsewhere heard it to be. It was, however, a signal improvement to my eyes over the Zeffirelli production it replaced, if only because I had seen the Zeffirelli production so much as to be heartily sick of it.

The strongest part of the Eyre production was the first act. Rob Howell’s sets play with the idea of brick walls as torn paper: an ancient, half-ruined coliseum appears as two interlocking semicircles of brick, rotating in and out of each other, and seemingly ripped from the back wall where a curtain of brick hangs down from above, forming a torn diagonal that cuts through empty blue air. The whole thing is airy and light, illuminated from above, the semicircles coming together like cupped hands or a church’s nave. The soldiers are relegated to the space outside the circle, segregated by wire mesh: drowsing and reading and dawdling through their day, they are spectators to the main action; while Carmen, and the other cigarette girls, make their entrance at the center of the circle, through a trap door.

Unfortunately the production didn’t do much to develop its themes laid out in this visually arresting beginning. Lillas Pastia’s tavern in Act II looked very much like a Soho restaurant designed by a high-end restaurant decorator: a tasteful Spanish theme provided by horns of bulls mounted on the brick walls; a lattice of red rafters filling the ceiling space and looking as if it had been designed by Mark Di Suvero; and, to complete the concept, a flamenco floor show. The smugglers’ act was more successful: the curving walls, whitened and eroded, actually looked like a limestone quarry, and the singers had a convincing scramble to get down them. And the final act returned to the initial idea of a central arena from which the action is shut out: the crowd gathered (and Carmen died) in a narrow strip of stage between the outer wall of the bullring and the proscenium.

Eyre seemed challenged by deploying people in this space. You could argue that the second cast, which I saw, might have been less attuned to Eyre's fine points than the first cast. But the chorus has been the same throughout, and they weren't used well: they stood around, moved in blocks, and sometimes had to make awkward transitions to get on and offstage. The much-touted choreography by Christopher Wheeldon was beautiful and superfluous; it wasn't clear what bearing the romantic pas de deux before the first and third acts had on the action, and they certainly didn't reflect the state of affairs between Carmen and Don José.

It's an interesting comment on the Met's new visually dominated aesthetic that I was initially a little disappointed that I wouldn't be seeing the slender and beautiful Elina Garanca as Carmen, even though I well know that Olga Borodina can sing circles around her; it gave me pause when I realized my own reaction. Borodina certainly met expectations: she looked like a middle-aged housewife, and she sang the pants off the part. Her lower register has grown to bass-like proportions; her top was secure; her singing was nuanced and thoughtful.

She also was also convincing a Carmen who is a force of nature. Many Carmens are needy, running around the stage in a palpable effort to convince their colleagues and the audience that they are really, really sexy. Borodina, by contrast, often comes across as if she truly didn’t care two cents for anyone’s opinion: a superb attribute for Carmen. And her raw power and force of self-possession were so palpable that it became fully credible that José, who has some mother issues in any case, was wholly intoxicated and unable to resist her; Brandon Jovanovich kept burrowing his head into her capacious bosom.

Jovanovich, a former winner of the Richard Tucker award, is a tall handsome tenor with a fine voice who, like many American singers of his generation, seems to be extending the “promising” phase of his career well into what might be considered his maturity. He’s singing around the world, and he has the vocal goods, yet he still seems callow. His José was perfectly fine, even thought out (I liked the piano or soft singing at the climax of the Flower Song), but not especially memorable. The real counterweight to Carmen was Maija Kovalevska’s Micaëla: a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice that also had some heft to it when called for. Micaëla may be a small-town girl, but she had a certain sophistication in this production, and there was no ambiguity, in Act I, about José’s attraction to her, which gave added force to his later desertion into Carmen’s camp: in Act III, she had to literally pull him away from her.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes did nothing, as Escamillo, to change earlier impressions of him as a good-looking guy with a good-sounding voice that he doesn’t really know how to use properly. Some of the supporting roles were very good: Keith Miller was strong and nasty and charismatic as Zuniga; and Liam Bonner (who appeared with the Wolf Trap Opera two summers ago in “King for a Day”) made an excellent Met debut as Morales. Another Met newcomer was the conductor, Alain Altinoglu, but he made a poor showing: despite his visible energy in the pit, the orchestra sounded tepid.

By Anne Midgette  |  February 10, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  opera  
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Comments

Would you consider a column in which you review and compare the various sources of classical music available on the Internet to download or order recordings? I think it would be a great service to your classical audience.

Posted by: dcdoc | February 10, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

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