Bizet’s Carmen is so great a masterpiece that it can withstand anything a deranged opera company can throw at it. Opera is a fragile art form, particularly in the 21st century. But with productions like Carrie Cracknell’s staging of today’s HD telecast combined with the recent new operas that started this season’s series the company is doing its best to embalm the whole business.
Cracknell is a British director who read history at the University of Nottingham where she was president of The Nottingham New Theatre. She chose to set Carmen in a modern setting located near the southern US border. Carmen works in an arms factory that must be federally funded as it employs only women who go on a cigarette break three minutes after they arrive for work. Carmen has tattoos and is portrayed as the county slut. Esamillo is a rodeo star rather than a bullfighter. The original French words were performed, but the English translation was changed to reflect his altered professional status.
All the characters are cartoonish versions of what Cracknell thinks is the American Deplorable Class. All that’s missing are a bunch of MAGA hats. She knows as much about the people she’s depicting as I do about the flora and fauna of Sherwood Forest – maybe less.
The sets are equally loony. There is an 18-wheeler truck that’s set on a revolving stage that’s used so often in Acts 3 and 4 that a Dramamine during the interval should be mandatory. The smugglers are transporting guns, fentanyl would have been more apropos in this dismal mounting. A full appreciation of how off the rails was this staging is Carmen’s murder. Instead of being stabbed, she’s bonked over the head with a baseball bat. I stopped donating money to the Met several years ago. This production reinforces the correctness of that decision.
OK, so Ms Cracknell (rhymes with Bracknell) was clueless in her approach to one of the theater’s greatest accomplishments, but how was the performance? Very good.
The title role was sung by the 27-year-old Russian mezzo Aigul Akhmetshina. She’s been singing the role since she was 21. She has a large and full voice that easily managed all of Carmen’s nuances, though at this stage of her development, her large sound was most effective in the dramatic parts of the role such as the Card Scene and the final encounter with José. She’s obviously an artist to watch.
José was performed by the 57-year-old Polish tenor Piotr Beczala. Vocally he hasn’t lost a step, or rather a note. Though a lirico-spinto tenor his excellent technique allows him to sing spinto roles like José with ease, declamatory polish, and dramatic impact. He started a little tentatively, but beginning with the ‘Flower Song’ he was in full command of his role. He ended the great aria with a high B-flat sung pianissimo from the chest, not the falsetto commonly employed to make this effect. His outbursts in the final two acts were passionate and fully controlled – a fine job.
Angel Blue’s voice keeps getting better and bigger. Alas, so is she. The occupational health hazard the consequence of too many post-show big dinners is afflicting her as it does so many other opera singers. Her rendition of Micaela’s Act 3 aria was sumptuous. She is a vocal treasure whose health I hope endures the heavy meals.
The only slim principal in today’s cast was Kyle Ketelsen. The American bass-baritone did not show the vocal heft and elan needed to realize the Toreador Song. He was fine during the rest of the show.
All the supporting singers were excellent and met the demands of Bizet’s complicated ensembles. Conductor Daniele Rustioni led a vigorous performance of Bizet’s magical score.
There were a few people in the Met’s audience wearing masks – they’ll likely be buried in them. They would have been better advised to have placed them over their eyes. Peter Gelb having spent a lot of money staging this production will likely be stuck with it for a long time. For the duration of its life, Carmen from the Met will be best experienced on the radio.
Georges Bizet | Henri Meilhac/Ludovic Halévy
Don José……….Piotr Beczala
Videor Director………Gary Halvorson