Well, I'm not sure why I'm inspired by Richard Eyre's new production of Carmen to take up blogging again, but I thought I would give it a shot. To tell the truth, I haven't been inspired by all that much this season, with the enormous exception of From the House of the Dead, which I liked so much I'm not sure if I would write a very good review of it. After some time in Europe that didn't involve blogging but did involve many crazy Regie productions, most of what I've seen at the Met this season seemed under-thought and tentative.
I didn't like all the crazy European Regie, much of which was conspicuously over-thought, but you can't accuse them of not going for it, even if you're not always sure what the "it" they're going for is. But the Met's Tosca? Meh.* Hoffmann? Meh with a side of huh, except yay for the Olympia act. Fabio Luisi conducted a fabulous Elektra but I didn't write about it. But I told a friend I would tell her what I thought of Carmen and pretty soon I had something that was more a blog entry than a little email. Actually, it's EPIC. So here goes.
Meh. Meh meh meh. It is the year of tan brick walls at the Met, isn't it? After all those advent calendars (Doctor Atomic, Grimes, Damnation de Faust), I guess a change is welcome. The Carmen set, like most of the production, gets the job done well enough, even if it is without real distinction or star quality or magic or something. Sorry, I don't care enough to decide on one, maximally precise word. The lighting is better than that of Tosca, which gives those walls a classier, less bargain-basement look. And it fills the giant stage but focuses the action in the appropriate places well enough. The turntable also facilitates a one-intermission show, like that of Trovatore. As a resident of the 'burbs, I approve. The setting is 1930's, which means none of the expected corsets and big coats. But that's about all it seemed to mean.
Carmen seems like a show you can barely screw up, though Zeffirelli managed (my review of the Zeff's last outing here, I was not a fan). This performance, like its set, worked well enough for me. The best parts were mostly brought to you by Roberto Alagna as Don José. I have mixed feelings about Alagna, and his voice does seem to be past its best days. The sound is a little pinched and wobbly. But his French is gloriously French, and his dramatic command all there, particularly when his Don José acts like a hormonal 16-year old, which is a fair amount of the time.
He did try that much-debated piano B flat at the end of the Flower Aria at an actual piano. It sounded falsetto and Not Good. There was not much of an ovation. I am all about weakness on this note in dramatic terms--if you haven't read Susan McClary's analysis of this thing in her book Feminine Endings you need to, she says that this, José's supposed tenorial triumph, is actually his moment of greatest weakness, and his submission to Carmen's demands--but I recognize that this sort of weakness might not have been what Bobby was shooting for.
Below: Toreador Song. At least Frasquita and Mércèdes (right) have attitude.
Carmen, you say? Right. Elina Garanca is, as you may have read elsewhere, quite a cool customer as the titular gypsy. I like the idea of a chill and detached Carmen. It could make a lot of sense. Carmen's allure is often over-acted, and seems desperate. Carmen isn't desperate at all, she doesn't have to expend any effort to make men fall for her. But you need something in place of all that hip swinging and boobage and meaningful eyebrow action and all those other Carmen tricks that most mezzos haul out. If Carmen is going to be still her stillness needs to say something, something that shows she's the 19th century's worst (albeit sexiest) nightmare, and Garanca just seemed too inexpressive and inert. This is rather like her Charlotte and Dorabella I saw in Europe. She's just not much of an actress.
Her voice is all you could wish for in a Carmen, and fully up to the Met's size. Her tone is rich and even, her intonation right on, and her French is pretty good. But as a singer she also seemed to lack some character. Her phrasing is generic, there isn't much variation of color, and I couldn't pick her out of a vocal lineup based on any individual characteristics. I hope she improves, because she has it all except that spark. She could also use some better hair. It looks like they gave Karita's heinous Tosca wig a perm, with equally disastrous results. Scandinavian and Baltic divas cannot be transformed into Mediterraneans so easily.
One thing that wasn't inert was the conducting. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and yes I looked that spelling up after initially typing Néguin-Sezet but I shouldn't complain, in spelling terms he's no Ekaterina Shcherbachenko, and Nézet-Séguin probably sounds lovely when pronounced in the proper French that I no longer have at the tip of my tongue and La Juntwait doesn't have either.** Anyway he likes this score zippy and light. And I liked it too. The melodrama recedes a bit, but it works (I like melodrama). The prelude was really really fast, and the rest not quite so extreme but certainly on the fast side. Some interesting colorings in this score's fantastic orchestration, generally tending towards textual transparency. It was opéra-comique in a way that the be-recitative-ed text most definitely was not. Grrrr. See below for whining.
One interesting thing: a little while back I watched this DVD of Carmen from Covent Garden, a recent Francesca Zambello production. I recommend it. What was funny was all the stage business lifted directly out of that production and into the Met one, mostly stuff for Don José and Carmen. I looked at the libretto and most of it isn't in there, or not in such detail. Garanca and Alagna sang together this fall in the Zambello before coming to the Met for the Eyre, and it seems they brought some stuff with them, namely the Seguidilla, the duet prior to the Flower Aria and a few parts of the finale. Hmmmm. I call shenanigans.
Speaking of that finale, it's probably the most exciting part of the opera but is most certainly the most exciting part of this staging. The big red slash on the curtain that migrates to Carmen's dress and the (spoiler) unsubtle dead bull at the end (though the more you think about that one the less sense it makes) both have wandered over from December's Elektra, or was that a horse? Anyways, I thought this staging was tense and fantastic. I would not have Don José pull the knife out quite so early, I can't quite believe that Carmen would stick around while he's waving it around, she's brave but not stupid, but that's a fairly minor point.
As for the other singer people, Mariusz Kwiecien seems to be in over his admittedly pretty head. Most Escamillos seem to be miscast, though, the tessitura is weird. I'm all in favor of barihunk Escamillos, but well, do we have any bass-barihunks around? Barbara Frittoli is not ideal either, but I did enjoy her Micaëla. Her vowels and phrasing hail from the Italian part of France, her high notes are hard on the ears, and her vibrato is wide. That sounds bad, but I still thought her phrasing was beautiful and musical (if not idiomatic) and she was charming and innocent in the required Micaëla style.
Christopher Wheeldon's interpolated dances are good as dances go but they seemed dramatically unnecessary, too short to go anywhere much. I really liked the choreography for the usual dance at Lilias Pastia's though. But, and this isn't dance, the procession at the top of Act 4? Seriously unspectacular. This seemed to be a function of stage space, but there must be some better way of arranging people for a more dramatic parade. Come on, has Aïda taught the Met nothing?
I suppose this production will be trotted out very frequently in coming years, and I don't think that's a bad thing. It's certainly better than the Zeff. It seems modeled on the Trovatore of last season, which I happened to love--slightly updated, turntable set, somewhat innovative but mostly traditional. What made the Trov great was the cast and McVicar's work with them, something I didn't think quite was on the same level here. But it seems to give future Carmens and Don José's enough space to hopefully make it something memorable. If I have time and money in April, I will pay a repeat visit to
Oh, that lack of spoken dialogue that I ranted about in my earlier Carmen review? It is still MIA. I still don't approve. I still think this edition is a travesty and the lack of dialogue screws up the plot in some places--where are you, thing before the Act II quintet? You almost make that quintet worth it but here it erupts in all its Offenbachian finery for no clear reason. And then they keep some of the dialogue in Act III and it's weird, because there hasn't been any at all up to this point but now there's talking. Can't we at least have consistency here? But judging from the Hoffmann and the persistence of Don Carlo over Don Carlos we can't hope for decent editions at the Met anytime soon. This does not mean I will stop whining. That's why I have a blog.
Next up: Yo ho ho, a baritone's life for me. Placido Domingo in Simon Boccanegra.
*I was lucky enough to witness the performance where Gagnidze mimed Act 2 and Carlo Guelfi sung from the side of the stage. It made it more interesting. Gagnidze's delayed reaction to the death rattle provided by Guelfi was the most radical thing in the whole production. But some German director has probably done that already.
**My French isn't the greatest. I could understand Garanca. Therefore, in my book, she has OK French.