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by Michael Portantiere

Giving Carmen the Eyre

  • Carmen1.jpg

    Giving Carmen the Eyre

    In a program note for the new Metropolitan Opera production of Carmen, director Richard Eyre writes: "Coming late to opera, I heard [this] score for the first time in a re-orchestrated version in the film of Carmen Jones." Taking a cue from Oscar Hammerstein's Broadway musical adaptation of Georges Bizet's immortal opera, Eyre has moved the action of the piece forward in time roughly 100 years, from the mid 19th-century to the mid 20th -- although he has kept the setting in Spain, now in the 1930s, rather than placing it in WW-II era America. As it turns out, this is the least damaging conceit of the production.

    That Eyre is very confused as to how to deal with Carmen is evident in the edition (if that's the correct word!) of the work that he has concocted for this production. According to the program, "This version of Carmen uses, in part, the critical edition by Fritz Oeser." In part? Over the course of two hours and 45 minutes of music, I noticed only one 50-second passage taken from Oeser: Carmen's taunting repeat of Don José's "Il souffre de partir..." in Act II. Throughout the rest of the evening, Eyre frequently uses the recitatives that Ernest Guiraud composed for the opera after Bizet's untimely death; but he sometimes replaces the recits with a line or two of spoken dialogue drawn from the sung dialogue, and other times he completely eliminates the recits, replacing them with nothing at all. Never do we hear any of the spoken dialogue that was used in the original, "opera comique" version Carmen. In short, to call this "edition" an unsatisfying hodge-podge would be to put it mildly.

    The production, with sets and costumes by Richard Howell, and lighting by Peter Mumford, makes much use of a huge turntable. This allows for set changes within each act, which can be annoyingly intrusive if overdone, as here. The shifts back and forth from the inside of the guardhouse to the plaza in Act I are all well and good; but when, in the last 30 seconds of the opera, Eyre and Howell rotate the brutally murdered Carmen and the murderer Don José offstage to show us the interior of the bullring, with the animal lying dead and bloodied in the foreground and the crowd gathered in tableau around it, the only natural response is to let out with an expletive that conveniently begins with the word "bull."

    In confronting Carmen, one of the greatest artistic masterpiece of all time, Eyre seems to have said to himself: "I'm going to put my own stamp on this thing, even if that means I have to contradict the intentions of the authors." For every moment of intelligence or clarity in his direction, there's a moment of nonsense. To give only two more examples of many: The can be little doubt that, in real life, the soldiers' teasing of Micaëla in the first scene of the opera would more closely resemble sexual harassment than harmless flirtation, and that Carmen's smuggler cohorts Dancaïre and Remendado would be rough customers, not jovial comic figures. But Bizet and his librettists chose to present these scenes and characters as light and amusing rather than menacing, so Eyre's insistence on a grittier interpretation is counterproductive.

    On the plus side of the ledger, this production boasts a strong cast. Elina Garanca surely ranks as one of the sexiest, most physically beautiful Carmens in history -- not an unimportant attribute in the role of a woman whose allure is supposed to be off the charts. She is further blessed with a gorgeous voice that's perfectly equalized throughout its wide range; when she filled the auditorium with sound in the climactic section of the card aria and in the final duet, the sound was so powerful that I feared some more of that gold leaf on the Met ceiling was going to peel off.

    Although Roberto Alagna rather distractingly continues to employ various different techniques of vocal production, especially in his upper register, the basic sound is impressive -- and, as befits his Carmen, Alagna is one of the handsomest Josés you're ever likely to see. Barbara Frittoli's pretty, effortless soprano perfectly suits the role of Micaëla, and Mariusz Kwiecen is dashing as the bullfighter Escamillo. In the performance I attended, Ashley Tuttle and Keith Roberts danced beautifully at the top of Act I and Act II (choreography by Christopher Wheeldon), but whether or not dances by two nameless, symbolic figures should have been included as these junctures is another question entirely. Yannick Nézet-Sé conducts Bizet's masterpiece of a score with great élan. It's a pity that Eyre's direction so frequently works against, rather than with, the piece and the performers.

    Published on Monday, January 11, 2010

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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