In recent years I have seen Carmen performed by West Bay Opera, Pocket Opera, Opera San Jose, and Met HD. Every production is different, and I’ve liked every one of them.
First of all, the music is both wonderful and familiar. I haven’t come close to memorizing it, or course, but let me put it this way. Given the first 5 or so notes of almost any selection, I have a pretty good idea of what the next five will sound like.
The music, of course, starts with the overture. I’m learning that one can frequently tell a lot about an opera from the first few measures of the overture. Carmen’s overture always says this is going to be an action-filled opera. But when Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin first lowers his hands to begin, they seem to bounce back up almost before they are down, and we are off at a gallop.
Part way through the overture the curtain was partially opened to create a tall triangular space filled with an intense red light. We see a wonderful pair of dancers, Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey perform a short ballet, closer to an Apache dance than to a traditional pas de deux. Extremely athletic with lots of one dancer apparently throwing the other about, it presaged the tempestuous affair about to begin between Carmen and Don José.
Next, lets talk about the characters. The minor characters are strictly minor. In this production as in most, they perform their roles adequately but not brilliantly. There is no danger that they will eclipse one of the stars, so we’ll jump right to the four major characters from the bottom up.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes is perfectly cast as Escamillo. He is tall and has a fine deep voice, and he has an appealing naïve arrogance. He knows he’s damned good at his trade so he doesn’t have to do any tricks to prove it to anyone. He falls instantly in love with Carmen at their first casual meeting, but he can wait; when she gets over her current infatuation, she’ll fall for him. We learn later from his interview with Renée Fleming (from the Live HD on January 16 – the Summer Encores cut all of those wonderful interviews) that he had just finished a leisurely breakfast that morning when he received a call from the Met to get down there in a hurry to rehearse; at 1 pm he was going on stage. Mariusz Kwiecien who had been singing the role was ill and would be unable to perform at the matinee 3 hours from now! I never would have guessed it.
Micaëla is more complex. On the surface, she’s too good to be true. She loves Don José deeply but is not a passionate woman. I thought that Barbara Frittoli played her perfectly in Act 1. She showed her discomfort with the crude behavior of the soldiers – cruder than I recall it in other productions, but did not lose her dignity before she made her escape. She struck just the right balance between shyness and love in her scene with Don José.
In Act III I found her very appealing as she sang her beautiful aria about putting on a brave front when inside she is truly afraid. However, later in the act when Don José brutally tells her that he is desperately in love with Carmen and nothing will induce him to leave her, it was not clear to me how Ms Frittoli envisioned the role. Does she, like a saint, forgive her lover even this sin of loving another woman? Or, like a mortal woman, does she feel hurt and betrayed, willing to make one final attempt to get him away by telling him that his mother is dying?
All of which leads me to an observation about a not-so-obvious drawback to the HD presentation. If I go to see a second live performance of a particular opera, I can choose to concentrate on different things than I did the first time. For example here at the end of Act III, the first time all of my attention would be on the principals, Carmen and Don José. But a second time through I would remember them and would be paying more attention to Micaëla. But with HD I don’t have that choice. The second viewing is not a new occurrence; it is a clone of the first.
Logically, I should now discuss Don José and save Carmen for last. But without Carmen, Don José is nothing. He’s just an ordinary country boy, putting in his time as a soldier, looking forward to returning to his village, marrying Micaëla, raising a family, and providing a home for his mother in her old age. Nothing there to inspire a brilliant composer to write an opera.
But Carmen. Ah, Carmen. There’s a gal worth composing for. She can be played with many different nuances, but basically she is sexy and she is dominating – and for Elina Garanča the key word is the latter. She is not driven by lust but by a need to dominate. I hope I may be spared ever seeing a production in which the director shows the couple actively in bed together – but if there ever is such a scene, Carmen would have to be on top.
Sex is not an end in itself for her, but merely a tool with which she is blessed and which she can use to enslave one man after another. As Escamillo says in Act II, her lovers don’t last long.
I don’t know how she does it, but she does it. Her eyes blaze with a fierce independence. Her little half-smile to herself is not a smile of welcome – it is a gloating smile of pleasure yet to come. With a flick of the tip of her tongue she literally licks her lips in feline anticipation of the fate of her current mouse.
The opera starts at a point in Carmen’s life when she has begun to tire of easy conquests. During her famous Habanera aria in Act I, almost every male on the crowded stage would like to make love to her. She lets one after another get started, lures him on for a few measures, and casually pushes him off – to the general amusement of the crowd and rueful acceptance by the butt of the joke (after all, rejection by Carmen is a lot less traumatic than rejection by Turandot).
“Almost” every male – the exception of course is Don José. And, of course, that indifference piques Carmen’s interest, and off we go.
Roberto Alagna and Elina Garanča are the most physical lovers in my experience with Carmen. In the course of their stormy romance they do a great deal of throwing each other about. Renée Fleming mentioned this in her interview with them after Act I, and Alagna laughingly pulled up his sleeve to show a black-and-blue mark.
Act II ends with Don José drawing his sword on his officer Zuniga (Keith Miller) so that rather than face a severe court martial he must join Carmen and the smugglers. Carmen, of course, is vastly pleased with this arrangement. Act III begins with Don José being a smuggler but Carmen now thoroughly bored with him. I have never seen a synopsis or libretto which indicates the time jump between these two acts.
In this production, this gap of unknown duration is filled by a charming entr’acte ballet. Danced in the same triangular curtain opening, but with blue light and filmy white costumes, it is in stark contrast to the overture ballet. It is still athletic, but it is intimate rather than violent. It seemed to bridge that time jump and to indicate that at least for a brief while the two lovers were blissfully happy together. I am glad to think that Don José had at least some reward for the terrible choice he was forced into.
The opera Carmen will always be on my “top-ten” list. I’ll go see it again and again; a new production or a repeat. But it doesn’t move me the way I am moved by La Bohème, Butterfly, etc.. In the privacy of my own thoughts I can fantasize being twenty (or fifty) years younger, meeting an opera heroine in real life, and having an affair. Mimi, Violetta, Cio Cio San, Susannah, the Marschallin to name a few. But Carmen? Thank you no. If she started “coming on” to me at a cocktail party, I would run (not walk) for the nearest exit. The only way I could imagine entering a bedroom with Carmen would be in a nightmare in which I was forced to choose between two doors and knew that Salome was behind the other one.
But to see her again on stage or screen? Just ask me.
The Opera Nut
Photos: Ken Howard and Marty Sohl /Metropolitan Opera
This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on August 5, 2010.