Rough edges take the bite out of Met’s “Carmen” revival

Wed Oct 31, 2018 at 12:56 pm
Clementine Margaine and Kyle Ketelsen in Bizet's "Carmen" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Clementine Margaine and Kyle Ketelsen in Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

The threat of violence is at the core of the Met’s Carmen: from the street fights of Act I to the bullfight of Act IV, there is a constant tension that feels as though it might turn into bloodshed at any moment.

On most nights, the Richard Eyre production that has been a staple of the Metropolitan Opera rep since its debut in 2009 captures that unease perfectly, adding extra menace by moving the action to the era of the Spanish Civil War.

The revival that opened Tuesday night under the direction of Paula Williams fell well short, seemingly a victim of inadequate rehearsal time. Leads struggled with their props: for instance, it took Don Jose a few tries to successfully handcuff Carmen, after which her restraint rope frequently got stuck on items of furniture. And while the production’s big set-piece number, a group flamenco dance at the top of Act II, is bracing when tightly performed, on Tuesday it was ragged, a noisy chorus of stomping heels over the orchestra. 

Not helping matters was the decision to perform the work with the insipid recitatives by Ernest Guiraud, washing away the essential grit of the original dialogues.

Reprising the role with which she made her 2017 company debut, Clémentine Margaine brought the same dramatic energy and expressive portrayal that made her first appearance so memorable. Few are the singers who can project such rich inner life while standing silently on the apron.

Her vocal performance, alas, was not on the same level—there was little warmth to her sound Tuesday, and her technique was insecure showing occasional issues of intonation, and roughness in many of her attacks. She made some interesting musical choices, for instance leaning hard into the dark timbre of the Habanera. Yet most of the night, problems of breath control forced her to sing in short phrases, limiting her ability to craft the line.

Yonghoon Lee, Tuesday’s Don José, has grown comfortably into a reliable house tenor for lead roles in revivals. His obsession with Carmen was disturbing in its intensity, right up through the terrifying violence of the final scene, and he delivered the text with firm conviction in spite of his muddy French diction. Much like Margaine, though, his dramatic performance came with certain vocal shortcomings. It’s nice for a change to hear a Don José who really shines in the top of the role–many recent tenors at the Met have muscled their way through the Flower Song–but in the rest of his range Lee struggled, pushing so hard for volume in his middle that his beaming tone vanished.

Kyle Ketelsen was a brilliant Escamillo, approaching the role of the macho matador with just the right swagger. He showed off a brawny, dark-grained voice in the Toreador Song, but was able to find a softer, smoother tone as well in his loving exchange with Carmen in Act IV. 

As Micaëla, Guanqun Yu was the picture of bright innocence, with a lively, lemony soprano. She brought exquisite phrasing to her lovely rendition of the Act III aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante,” showing keen emotion as she contrasted her shyness with blooming confidence.

Don José’s fellow officers turned in unusually strong performances on Tuesday night: Adrian Timpau flashed a growling, smoky baritone as Moralès, while Richard Bernstein boomed as Zuniga. Sarah Mesko brought a voluptuous mezzo as Mercédès, and Sydney Mancasola showed a piercing soprano in her company debut as Frasquita.

The star of the evening was Omer Meir Wellber, leading his first performance from the Met’s pit. His brisk, thrilling tempos threatened occasionally to get away from the singers in group numbers, but on the whole, this was a tight performance, rich in drama, that emphasized atmosphere. It was a banner night for the chorus, as well, who beamed in their excited celebration of the bullfight procession.

Carmen runs through November 15 at the Metropolitan Opera. Louis Langrée conducts a spring cast, starring Roberto Alagna as Don José, Aleksandra Kurzak as Micaëla, and Alexander Vinogradov as Escamillo, beginning January 9.

One Response to “Rough edges take the bite out of Met’s “Carmen” revival”

  1. Posted Nov 03, 2018 at 10:22 pm by Clordean Mendes

    Just viewed Carmen for myself today at the 1:00 performance at the Met. Coming in from Connecticut
    to view the Opera I have for decades wanted to see.

    I was disappointed. The overall production lacked passion and virbrency. Ms. Margaine, for me, did not at all project the sexual allure which would have men willing to forsake all for her. There was absolutely no sexual tension between the two leads, which made the entire storyline unconvincing. The songs were simply song, not projected to portray lust, passion, betrayal and desperation. Carmen is a sultry seductress, a red dress would have more effectively conveyed this than the black costumes in which they dressed her.

    As well, the dance ensembles costumes did not in the least convey the words of the lyrics which implied the seductiveness of the music and dance coming together with movement of red skirts or something to that effect. There was not a red or colorful skirt in the entire production until next to the last scene going to the bull fight. The production manager really missed it.

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