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Toot Toot, Yeah, Beep Beep

January 01, 2010

Elīna Garanča as Carmen
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

In the program for the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Bizet’s Carmen, which I saw last night, a reference is made to the intentions of director Richard Eyre and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. --Maestro Nézet-Séguin agrees with the director’s approach. “I’m not looking at this production in terms of, ‘Oh we need to do something different.”’ -- If this is the standard by which to judge this new Carmen, one could officially say “Mission Accomplished.” Richard Eyre’s production offers virtually nothing new to say about these conflicted residents of Seville that hasn’t been said thousands of times elsewhere. That’s not to say that this is a bad production, but it certainly isn’t a groundbreaking or even particularly memorable one. Eyre has updated the story to 1930s Spain and set all the action in a single giant rotunda of sorts. There are concentric rings of giant collapsing brick walls that rotate in opposing directions to reveal various spaces that are...surrounded by giant collapsing brick walls. Although there is a lot of movement, it can be rather bland to look at, especially in the first two acts. The 1930s house dresses of the cigarette factory workers do little to explain why the soldiers find them so attractive in Act I. This is only slightly less confusing than watching the factory workers rise from a cistern in the center of the stage for their entrance.

But underground cigarette factories aside, I will admit that all of these spinning layers started to grow on me by Act III. Eyre uses some of this activity for an almost cinematic effect. The opera ends with Don Jose holding Carmen’s dead body rotating away upstage to reveal in their place a red-lit tableau of the townspeople watching Escamillo delivering the deathblow to a life-sized downed bull. Sure it’s obvious, but it looked pretty cool at the time. Most remarkable to me, though, was probably some of the best choreography I’ve seen in any opera production before. Christopher Wheeldon provided an excellently coordinated flamenco sequence in Act II, which received the biggest mid-performance ovation of the night, as well as two superb and rather sexy bits at the beginning of each act. Two half-dressed solo dancers, a man and a woman, would appear in a large rift in the brick wall of the set and perform during both overtures. You get the idea.

Elīna Garanča and Mariusz Kwiecien
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

Sadly, most of the cast was unable to generate this level of sex appeal. Elīna Garanča was the Carmen. She sounded great, but I found her a little cold and removed for my taste. Roberto Alagna was a volatile Don Jose. And even though he handled the rage well, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more interesting the scenes would have been if his soon to be ex-wife, Angela Gheorghiu, had gone through with the plans to sing Carmen opposite him anyway in an operatic Shoot Out the Lights. I'd have loved to see that Act IV. If you wanted sex appeal from the vocalists, you’d have to turn to the "hot Pole", Mariusz Kwiecien. Apparently he traveled to Spain to be fitted for authentic bullfighter threads for this production and trust me, it was money well spent. He sounded pretty decent, too, as did Barbara Frittoli as Micäela. She may not have had the benefit of skin-tight high-waisted trousers, but her tone was bright and actually rather heart-breaking.

I felt Nézet-Séguin made a good impression with his Met Opera debut. He lunged into the overture at a remarkably fast pace leaving the orchestra struggling to keep up and I was initially a little worried. But things smoothed out and he managed pleasant dynamics and a lightness the piece requires. So while this new production may not be anyone’s dream of a perfect Carmen, it’s not unpleasant either. It’s modern looking enough with a few visual tricks to keep things from being totally boring, even though they can drag at times. And best of all, it continues the company’s efforts to enter the 20th century artistically. There were a smattering of boos for the production team during their curtain call which suggests that this is becoming as de rigueur here as it has been in Europe for well over a decade. It was hardly enough to think that most people were actually upset by the production, but enough to indicate that those desperately clutching onto the past aren’t pleased. A sure sign of success for the company, even if this individual production isn’t one for the record books.

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Wheeldon really is the bomb, so I'm glad he didn't make a fool of himself with opera choreography, a rocky shoal on which many have come to grief. Nicely written review, too.
Your review is on the mark. In fact all your review of the year-end opera at the Met are on the mark. Much more so than the Times. Bravo!
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