Carmen is a daunting challenge for any singer, much less for a mezzo whose roles before taking on Bizet’s extra human gypsy have been focused on Mozart and Rossini. Singing the role for the first time at the Met super heats the this challenge. Elina Garanča more than met the role’s requirements; she triumphed.
Today (January 16,2010) the Metropolitan Opera broadcast Bizet’s final opera in HD. The new production was directed by Richard Eyre with sets and costumes by Rob Howell. The dancing, much more of it than customary, was choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Unlike the Met’s dreary Tosca and drab Hoffmann, both new productions, that were televised earlier this season, Carmen was a qualified success. The qualification was the first act. The time of the opera was ostensibly moved to the early Franco era, but the time shift was almost invisible and was likely ignored by virtually all the audience. The problem with the first act was plainness – no it was ugly. The cigarette girls came out of a hole in the ground and were dressed in schmattas. They looked like they needed a bath. They were hardly “alluring and seductive”. Who would build a subterranean cigarette factory in Seville?
The remaining three acts were much better, not so much because the sets were flashy or eye catching – rather they didn’t get in the way of the action or the music. The orchestral introductions to acts 1 and 4 were concluded by a brief ballet that worked very well. The dancing set the mood for the drama to come. The two dancers, Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey, realized these interpolations perfectly so that they seemed to always have been part of the opera. The same was true of the flamenco inspired dancing that was added to the beginning of the second act. Here some of the singers were also required to dance. They handled themselves with grace and aplomb.
The opera’s stark final scene, Carmen’s murder, was simply set allowing Carmen, José, and Bizet to supply all the effect needed for this gripping climax.
Elina Garanča who was originally scheduled to sing in the Met’s Hoffmann moved to Carmen as a replacement for Angela Gheorghiu. Garanča proved to be a brilliant choice. She’s very tall and embodies statuesque, voluptuous, and beautiful in ways that need to be seen rather than described. Her acting was earthy and seductive. She moved with leonine grace and tossed of her dance parts with appropriate grace. Her voice is dark, dramatic, and beautiful. Her tone was pure from top to bottom. There was not even the hint of a vocal problem. Hers was a Carmen that could stand comparison with any of her great predecessors at the Met. In a dark wig the naturally blond Latvian seemed the essence of Gypsy fire. Garanča’s Carmen was a proletarian earth goddess who only dies only for an instant. She will never really go away. In this regard, she was like the bull in a corrida. He dies only to be reborn. Garanča’s voice is so well placed and produced that she sounds as if she could sing anything she chooses.
Roberto Alagna was Don José. Why is the peasant corporal called “Don”? “Don” is an honorific reserved as a mark of esteem for a person of personal, social, or official distinction. Regardless, Alagna’s tenor is no longer the beautiful lyric instrument it once was. It’s mid range is dark and has a spinto sound. His top notes are strained. He elected to take the high B-flat at the end of the Flower Song piano rather than the usual forte. The result was a pathetic falsetto that robbed the aria of its power and poetry. The remainder of his performance was solid if not memorable. His acting was convincing. The death scene was acted passionately. The powerful acting of both Garanča and Alagna left the audience riveted as it’s supposed to be when this most dramatic of scenes is done right. Alagna’s manhandling of Carmen was so rough that it brought to mind Giuseppe Di Stefano’s Don José of more than 50 years ago. During the Met broadcast Carmen in 1956 he broke Risë Steven’s arm in the last scene of the opera.
Teddy Tehu Rhodes, a New Zealand born baritone, was a last minute replacement for Mariusz Kwiecien. The extremely tall and slim singer did well with the Toreador’s Song though his sound is a little hollow. Barbara Frittoli sang Michaela with a pure light soprano. She did her best to impersonate a peasant girl about 25 years younger than she is. Gary Halvorson’s closeups did not ease her task. Keith Miller was impressive both vocally and dramatically as Zuniga.
This production of Carmen was the Met debut of Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The 34 year old maestro appears to be the picture of mildness, but he led the Met orchestra in a whiplash reading of Bizet’s great score that captured both its brilliance and lyricism. This was clearly the most successful HD broadcast of the season thanks to Garanča and Nézet-Séguin. The future looks grand for both these young artists.