(For the September 28, 2012 performance)
Richard Eyre’s production is one of the better ones to premiere during the Gelb era. The curtain is a black one with one red stripe through it. This red stripe opens up during the first and third acts to reveal ballet dancers that simulate the passion and intensity of Carmen and Jose’s romance. In the opera’s prelude the dance is set against the dark and fateful music, emphasizing the destruction of the main heroine while in the third act, the ballet is set against the tender intermezzo that serves as the cinematic equivalent of montage to show the brief beauty of the romance between Carmen and Jose.
Carmen, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, is a tragic-comedy. The opera premiered at the Opera Comique and in a sick way (like Don Giovanni) has a happy ending in which the main character, also an anti-hero of sorts, dies. Whereas the happy ending celebrates the death of the Don in Mozart’s masterwork, the “happy” ending in Carmen celebrates the heroine’s independence and liberty until the very end of her days. Even Bizet is content to delight in this double personality of his work. The prelude starts off with the gallant toreador’s march before being taken over by the aforementioned fateful theme. During Act 3, Carmen sings a fateful lament upon reading the fateful hand of cards she has been dealt while Frasquita and Mercedes sing a joyful theme. This same technique is employed in possibly the most incredible display of dramatic counterpoint in the final act when Jose kills Carmen while the crowd cheers Escamillo’s goring of the bull.
Eyre’s red stripe that splits the curtain emphasizes this “double” personality in the opera and emphasizes a great deal of comic moments throughout. For the first two acts, the violence is ever present, but it is neatly balanced by a wealth of comic ones. The children’s chorus gets a lot to do here from mocking the brutal soldiers in act 1 to being derisive of the toreadors in the final act. Likewise, Carmen plays jokes on her suitors and even sprays Zuniga with an orange during the Habanera.
If there was one gripe with the production is that there was some rather odd light changes going on during Act 3; almost as if they were in a tech rehearsal trying to figure out their light cues. It was a bit distracting, though not detrimental.
Anita Rachvelishvili made her debut in the role of the fated gypsy at the Age of 25 at La Scala. Unfortunately, she was overshadowed that year by a cast that included Jonas Kaufman as Don Jose and Erwin Schrott as Escamillo. Both men were among the main proponents of their respective roles and it was likely difficult for a 25 year old to make such a huge impression with the overpowering personalities of the two men. But now 28, Rachvelishvili proved that her precocious debut was not a fluke as she commandeered the stage as the iconic gypsy. At the end of Escamillo’s toreador song in Act 2, the three gypsy women Frasquita, Mercedes, and Carmen each take turns repeating the phrase “L’amour.” Frasquita and Mercedes sang theirs first right next to the gallant toreador in attempts to woe him. But Rachvelishvili’s Carmen went downstage and repeated the phrase with such volume and intensity that she immediately took over the stage: scene stealing at its finest. And that’s what she did the entire night showing off a number of incredible vocal pyrotechnics with her meaty, dark, and voluminous voice. Also quite promising is that upper range of hers which was on full display during the Habanera and especially during the Act 3 card aria where she ascended to a visceral high F that was full of pain and anguish. This Carmen was strong willed, but showed a great deal of vulnerability as Zuniga and Jose threw her all over the place and mistreated her. At the end of Act 3, Carmen almost looked like a victim. Rachvelishvili’s performance was captivating, complex, and at just 28 years of age, she is a star on the rise.
I had the chance to see Korean Tenor Yonghoon Lee sing Don Carlo two years ago and Nabucco last season. During those two operas, he showed his potential to be one of the great dramatic tenors of this generation. He continued to make a strong case for that with a dominating performance as Don Jose. Lee’s voice is tremendously resourceful; he has tremendous heft and volume coupled with a bright Italiante sound that reminds you of Corelli at some points and Bergonzi at others. But he also has a beautifully elegant mezza voce that suits the French repertoire handsomely. His flower aria, which he sculpted with delicate phrasing, deservedly drew the most applause of the evening. The high B flat with which the aria ends was breathtaking in its execution and depth of feeling. At this point, Lee’s impulsive Jose had unraveled himself emotionally in front of this woman and one felt that he could never be the same. Lee’s performance of Jose was special for other reasons as well. His Jose was an insecure man who utilizes his violent impulses to hide this insecurity and assert his real lack of strength. However, as the opera progressed, the violence started to take over as the insecurity continued to mount and in Act 3, he pounded Carmen to the ground in a jealous rage. In the final confrontation of Act 4, the sweet gentle man was in constant battle with the raging jealousy as he tried to convince his love to come back to him. Bizet gives Jose the final phrase of the opera and Lee sang this rich music with such desperation and depth of sorrow that it almost felt as if he were crying. The fact that he expanded the phrase only added to the anguish and pain that one felt listening to his heartbroken voice. His French was a bit suspect at times, but Lee’s dramatic assertiveness and vocal goods made it one hell of success for him.
Kate Royal has a light voice that suited the bashful Michaela to perfection. She was charming in Act 1, but brought a tragic complexion to the scorned woman in her Act 3 aria. Kyle Ketelson brought fortitude and confidence to Escamillo but also showed tenderness in the final Act’s pledge to Carmen and the ensuing duet with her.
Conductor Michele Mariotti seemed a bit nervous early on and rushed through the prelude. He settle down later on but seemed uncomfortable with the Met’s horn section. He constantly over indulged their sounds at the most quiet of moments, such as the Michaela-Jose Duet of Act 1 where the horn accompaniment almost took the attention away from the singers.
Eyre’s production has been a huge success since its premiere a few years ago, but this cast certainly threatens to be the best presentation of the production to date.