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Gritty staging, Heras-Casado’s conducting lift a mixed cast in Met’s “Carmen”

October 01, 2014 at 1:11 pm
Aleksandrs Antonenko and Anita Rachvelishvili in Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Metropolitan Opera.  Photo: Ken Howard

Aleksandrs Antonenko and Anita Rachvelishvili in Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Metropolitan Opera.
Photo: Ken Howard

It’s hard to go wrong with Carmen—Bizet’s score, melodies, and story are so gripping that the piece shines through even when its lead actors aren’t strong enough to carry it. So it was in the Metropolitan Opera’s performance Tuesday night, which, between Richard Eyre’s dark staging and Pablo Heras-Casado’s first-rate conducting, had electric energy, even without a breakout star performance.

Anita Rachvelishvili returned to the title role, with which she made her company debut in 2011. In some ways, she has grown into the part since then; her acting is more natural than it was during the last run, and she struck a fiercely defiant note in her mocking “Tra la la.” And yet, leaving the house it was hard to say that she had really put her stamp on this touchstone role.

The Georgian mezzo certainly has a voice predisposed to the part—there is a naturally dusky quality to her tone, and she has enough agility to toss off the turns of the Séguedille. But her interpretation was insufficiently smoldering, unable to match her seductive physicality. The Habanera, for instance, was given with a secure, smooth tone—albeit with some wide top notes—but it was mostly straightly sung. A truly irresistible Carmen has to have an unmistakably sultry quality to her singing, and Rachvelishvili’s portrayal was not buckling any knees. She was at her best in the moment of fearful introspection during the Tarot trio, sounding almost Verdian for a few bars.

As Don José, Aleksandrs Antonenko mostly sounded effortful and occasionally sounded overmatched, as when he ducked into a dodgy falsetto during his first-act duet with Micaëla. His Flower aria, though more secure vocally, was not particularly nuanced. Only in the final act, where exhaustion, both emotional and physical, is part of the drama, did Antonenko make a compelling case for his role.

Massimo Cavalletti’s Escamillo was serviceable, though uninspired, an unfortunate trend in the Met’s recent runs of this opera. His vowels, for one thing, were nowhere near recognizable as French, and his best oaky tone came and went.

The vocal star of the night, by a country mile, was Anita Hartig as Micaëla. Fresh off her triumphant 2014 debut as Mimì (and a brief run as Butterfly), the Romanian soprano was remarkably sympathetic in what is, dramatically at least, a rather thin role. She possesses a soaring, liquid voice with a quick, pleasant vibrato, and inhabits her role naturally, without any hint of practiced gesture. Her act III aria was transporting—this is the opera’s only real soliloquy, and she completely filled the empty set with her presence, delivering a passionate and soaring prayer that earned her the loudest cheer of the evening.

Heras-Casado’s conducting was just about ideal, as he led a sensuous, thrilling account of Bizet’s score. He was almost always completely in touch with his singers, and his tempi, often a notch or two past “brisk,” emphasized the opera’s wild side. The Met orchestra sounded their sumptuous best under his baton.

As Frasquita, Kiri Deonarine’s sparkling soprano stood out among a strong supporting cast, and John Moore made a strong impression with his beaming baritone as Moralès. Donald Palumbo’s chorus, as ever, was superb, especially the children, whose “Ta ra ta ta” chorus in the first act was enchanting.

Richard Eyre’s 2009 production, now in its fourth run, stands up well as a realistic but still challenging interpretation. Violence is Eyre’s focus, represented strikingly by the visual motif of a jagged red gash across the curtain—echoed in the rough-cut sets and in Carmen’s stark dress for act IV—and making itself felt in the sexual brutality that appears again and again.

Some moments seem to place dramatic considerations ahead of musical ones—Rachvelishvili sounded completely out of breath by the end of “Les tringles des sistres tintaient,” in which she was asked to take part in the gypsy dance as well as sing, and the second verse of Cavalletti’s Toreador song, delivered standing, was noticeably stronger than the first, delivered lounging in a straight-backed wooden chair.

Still, as a gritty and ferocious staging of a gritty and ferocious piece, Eyre’s production is consistently compelling. It is often difficult to watch, as in the clawing final struggle between the two estranged lovers, but then, Carmen’s world is a difficult one to inhabit.

Carmen runs through November 1, returning February 6-March 7 with Elina Garanca, Roberto Alagna, Gabor Bretz and Ailyn Perez, conducted by Louis Langree. Jonas Kaufmann will sing Don José March 4 and 7.


October 2

Modern Art Orchestra
Dave Liebman, saxophonist
Bartók: Allegro Barbaro
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