Margaine makes sensational debut in Met’s riveting “Carmen”

Fri Jan 20, 2017 at 2:35 pm
Clementine Margaine and Rafael Davila starred in Bizet's "Carmen" Thursday night at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Clémentine Margaine and Rafael Davila starred in Bizet’s “Carmen” Thursday night at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

A hit parade like no other, Bizet’s Carmen is sometimes in danger of turning stale, its every number immediately familiar to opera-goers of every stripe. But with a superb cast like the one the Metropolitan Opera fielded for the season premiere on Thursday night, the riveting tension and rakish excitement of the piece become irresistible.

Originally scheduled to sing the first four performances of the run, Sophie Koch had to withdraw from the title role due to illness. No matter, apparently–Clémentine Margaine, another French mezzo slated to sing the balance of this season’s performances, was enlisted to fill in the gap, and proved sensational in her company debut Thursday night.

Margaine has both the vocal and dramatic chops required to give a truly memorable account of this touchstone role. She has a round, dark tone that projects easily and clearly in almost every part of her range–she got lost a bit towards the bottom of her middle voice, but her upper range shoots into the house and her chest crackles with warmth.

She brought a laser focus to her interpretation of the role–no flighty seductress flitting about on a whim, Margaine’s Carmen is a driven woman of ambition who knows exactly how to get her way. She brilliantly channels this dramatic sense into her vocal interpretation, commanding attention with the sultry intensity of her singing. Her Habanera was daring, a steamy, free-handed rendition of some of the sexiest music in the operatic rep; she kept up that commitment throughout, spitting defiance in the faces of the officers during her interrogation, and bitterly resisting Don José in their final confrontation right until her tragic end. It was astonishing to see just how much energy she still had in reserve for that crucial final scene, driving the piece to its conclusion with breathtaking force.

Also a sub, but given far less notice, was Rafael Davila, filling in as Don José after illness sidelined Marcelo Álvarez at the last minute. He had a rough start, showing plenty of volume but also exposing a rough patch in his middle voice; it was a fine performance, given the circumstances, and Davila hit his stride as he warmed up, flashing a nice soft voice in the Flower Aria.

Maria Agresta, his Micaëla, was completely winning, stealing our hearts as she tried to make her way through the gritty world of the opera as the only innocent onstage. Her gorgeous prayer in Act III is astonishing in its context, a heartfelt plea that shocks the audience out of the world of sex, booze, and highway robbery. Agresta’s performance was touching, an earnest expression of profound emotional depth.

The company has struggled to find an ideal Escamillo in its last several runs, but not this time–Kyle Ketelsen is a perfect fit for the role in every way, combining charismatic swagger with a rich, bristling bass. When you get a performer who can really sing the role with bravado, the result is a thrilling “Toreador” song, but moreover a vivid character who becomes much more impressive than a cardboard-cutout jock.

Asher Fisch has a natural feel for the dramatic flair of Bizet’s score and led a thrilling performance, drawing rich, evocative playing from the orchestra, even when ensemble scenes got away from him slightly. Though somewhat less sparkling than other readings of this work, his pesante take on the music gave it an attractive roughness and dramatic weight, and allowed for brilliant contrasts to the lighter moments in the score, such as the beguiling simplicity of the Act III entr’acte. The only serious blemish was the frustrating decision to employ the traditional hybrid of spoken dialogue with the recitatives that Ernest Guiraud wrote after the fact. When the blunt force of the spoken text is so powerful, adding a little light music merely dilutes the drama, particularly in a production with such a raw feel as Richard Eyre’s.

The Met Opera Chorus was, it almost goes without saying, superb, displaying their full, radiant force in the procession before the bullfight in Act IV. Carmen offers the children’s chorus in particular a moment in the spotlight, and Anthony Piccolo’s singers were up to the task, diving into their mock march with gusto.

A strong supporting cast filled out the edges of the piece, led by Nicolas Testé, bringing a robust, peppery bass-baritone to the vulgar lieutenant Zuniga. Shirin Eskandani showed alluring smoke to her voice in a strong debut as Mercédés, alongside the bright, pealing Frasquita of Danielle Talamantes. John Moore sang Moralès with a ringing baritone that had just a hint of scruff, and Malcolm MacKenzie growled admirably as Le Dancaïre. Company stalwart Eduardo Valdes, reliable in every comprimario role that comes his way, made another strong showing as Le Remendado.

The return of Marcelo Àlvarez as Don José should make this cast even stronger, but either way, this Carmen is a brilliant testament to the dramatic and musical intensity that make the piece such a towering presence in the repertoire.

Carmen runs through February 18 at the Metropolitan Opera. Janai Brugger appears as Micaëla on February 3, and Michael Todd Simpson appears as Escamillo on February 15. Louis Langrée conducts on February 15 and 18.

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