Composer: Georges Bizet
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Director: Richard Eyre
Carmen: Elina Garanca
Don José: Roberto Alagna
Micaëla: Barbara Frittoli
Escamillo: Teddy Tabu Rhodes
My heart had just sunk back in September upon hearing that much celebrated soprano Angela Gheorghiu had for the most part bailed out of her Met debut as Carmen, in which she was supposed to share top billing with her husband, the tenor Roberto Alagna. I can't say that I was overly surprised though, because the woman is as well-known for her incredible voice and charismatic presence as for her capricious diva attitude. It has now become clear that they are going through a divorce and will not be on the same stage anytime soon, if ever. Result: he was staying put for Carmen, she was not. And I was mostly seething because I had figured that between the two of them, I'd rather watch HER take on a role that sure looked like the perfect fit: the voice, the looks, the fierceness... the flakiness.
But Carmen is an opera that it is hard not to love regardless of who's involved in it and the buzz about this new production was excellent, so it was still with mounting anticipation that my opera buddy Jennifer and I were finally set to kick off the New Year together in grand style at the Met on Saturday afternoon.
Bizet's most accomplished work was originally greeted with a hostile reaction when it premiered in Paris in 1875, in all likelihood because the audience consisted mostly of families and that its topic is not exactly PG-13, to say the least. But it is still extremely sad that all the negative feedback probably speeded up Bizet's untimely death three months later, a short time before the opera slowly started to build its reputation as one of the most popular of all times. And rightly so. What's not to love about a story energetically combining passion, sex, betrayal, violence and death?
Carmen, of course, revolves around its irresistible heroine, which means that selecting the right mezzo soprano is a daunting task. But my initial fears were quickly put to rest when Elina Garanca made her first appearance and I was immediately struck by her wild natural beauty, richly nuanced voice and defiantly untamed behavior. She was brazenly oozing unrepressed sexual energy through every single pore of her attractive body and was more than eager to fiercely flaunt everything she had and then some. After previous stints in Riga, Rome and London, this Latvian kind-of newcomer was obviously very comfortable with her free-spirited character and it gloriously showed. Her singing was vibrantly earthy, with clear phrasing and a real control over the notes she was effortlessly reaching. Move over Angela Gheorghiu, Elina Garanca has arrived.
A thinner Roberto Alagna seemed to completely relish slipping into a part that remains one of his main calling cards and flawlessly projected Don José's constant inner battle between doing the right thing or giving in to his obsession, all this emotional turmoil being impeccably reinforced by his ardent, passionate singing. Unsurprisingly, the show-stopping "Flower Song" had everybody instinctively hold their breath, totally caught up in the sheer beauty of the song, not to mention the poor guy's heart-breaking helplessness. Having him there instead of his future ex-wife turned out to be a true blessing, so I am standing duly corrected.
As the doomed pair everybody loves to watch tear each other apart, those two leads, who were both part of the same London production in those very same roles a few months ago, were burning up the stage with such sizzling chemistry that their steamy love scenes were sending heat waves blasting throughout the entire opera house, possibly piercing the screens of the worlwide simulcast too, she as sexy as the devil that possessed her, he as hot as the hell he was heading straight for.
But that was not all. Barbara Frittoli needs no introduction to Met's regulars and her Micaëla was absolutely lovely in her sweetness and dedication to the lost cause that was her former paramour. A last-minute replacement for an ailing Mariusz Kwiecien (I can't imagine it gets less last-minute than three hours before curtain time!), Teddy Tahu Rhodes did his best as Escamillo, the dashing toreador who thinks that the world is his oyster... or his arena. Although his signature song is readily recognizable from the very first notes, it is not a particularly easy one to tackle and on Saturday our baritone had occasionally trouble projecting over the orchestra, but he sure made up for it with plenty of cockiness in his demeanor.
The always reliable Met orchestra was conducted by fast-rising and fast-moving Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who proved to be the perfect choice to bring Bizet's vividly colorful score to life. He kept the music going with unwavering taste and gusto while making sure that the singers could all be heard above the fired-up musicians. Under his fully committed baton, the instantly hummable melodies sounded bright and fresh and the singing blended in seamlessly. Such a resounding success for a debut may be a blessing in disguise, but we all enjoyed every second of it.
The visual elements were well-integrated too, starting with the revolving circle-shaped walls that were reminiscent of a bull ring, of course, but could also be seen as a concrete metaphor for the circles of hell from where no escape was possible. As usual, the costumes were beautifully designed down to the last details. Amidst the unconspicuous earthy tones worn by most, the matadors' fancy outfits featured some eye-popping colors and intricate ornaments while Carmen met her tragic demise in a gorgeous Spanish-style black lace dress cut through by a blood-red slash and proudly sporting a traditional mantilla on her head.
For his Met Debut acclaimed English director Richard Eyre made quite a few interesting choices while being careful to respect tradition. The plot had been moved to the 1930s repressive Spain, but nothing much came out of it, and the cigarette factory was inexplicably located underground. Flashes of genuine inspiration, however, were numerous, such as the individual dancing numbers during the musical overtures (it sure beat staring at the black curtain), the welcome introduction of truly elaborate flamenco-inspired routines in the tavern, the fortunate disappearance of almost all spoken dialogues, and an unexpected but powerful final tableau right after Carmen got fatally stabbed, when the revolving set slowly revealed a bloody, stricken down bull under Escamillo's feet with the crowd in the background, all bathed in bright red light, spookily quiet and still as irrational violence and brutal death had suddenly won over.
By the time this was all over and a delirious standing ovation was saluting the artists, I had all but forgotten about my original misgivings (Angela who?). This was hands-down one of the best operas, and definitely the best Carmen, I had ever seen. There was an unrestrained joy, a palpable giddiness in the air of the Met's opera house on Saturday afternoon as we were all so unabashedly happy to have borne witness to such an all-around brilliant performance. Those feelings were all the more emphasized as on our way in we had passed several procrastinators desperately begging for tickets, to no avail as far as we could tell. Missing such a priceless production for a mere cash reward would have been just plain unthinkable, and we were glad we did not even think about it.