Georges Bizet’s Carmen had an inglorious premiere in 1875 but it has made up for insulting reviews by becoming one of the most popular operas in the world. It has been performed 1023 times at the Met, ranking overall fourth. La Bohème with 1344 performances is first.
The Met is continuing its free nightly streaming of operas and January 18 to 24 is the 45th week. It is all because of Covid-19, of course. This week’s offerings are titled Women on the Verge and when you see Lucia, Norma, La Traviata and Manon you get the message.
Richard Eyre’s 2009 production of Carmen has been revived several times with different casts. This week’s showing was of the November 2014 performance with Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen, Aleksandrs Antonenko as Don Jose and Anita Hartig as Micaela.
Eyre does not shy from the sexual passion that underlies the opera. In the opening scene, the lovely Micaela comes to the army barracks looking for Don Jose. Some of the soldiers start pawing her in a sexually suggestive way, to put it politely. She is not receptive. Carmen, the free-spirited cigarette girl, is not just receptive but a woman of such sexual magnetism she can make men give up their souls for her.
This is where the problem of the production begins. Rachvelishvili has a sultry mezzo voice, but she exudes very little magnetism. There is very little chemistry between her and Don Jose to justify his actions from deserting the army, to assaulting an officer, to joining criminals and committing murder. Antonenko and Rachvelishvili look well past their youthful prime to be involved in a passionate affair like that. I suppose we could look at it as mature infatuation but for these roles there are certain requirements that must be met. The sexual attraction and chemistry must be palpable. Antonenko and Rachvelishvili fall short even though their singing never falls below good.
The best singing and acting is done by soprano Anita Hartig, the girl from the country who comes to see Don Jose at the request of his mother. Her beautiful voice expresses innocence, pure love and humanity. She is exactly the opposite of Carmen and Don Jose.
Bass Ildar Abdrazakov is the heroic bullfighter Escamillo who belts out the Toreador aria with relish and gets Carmen away from Don Jose.
Part of Carmen’s sexual magnetism comes out in the age-old expression of eroticism – the dance. She is supposed to dance for Don Jose in the tavern of Lillas Pastia. Let us say that dancing is not Rachvelishvili’s forte.
Eyre does have two marvellous dancers, Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey, who perform on two occasions with electrifying sexuality.
Eyre sets the opera in Fascist Spain of the 1930’s. The set by Rob Howell uses walls and pillars that look like movable Roman ruins. In the first act, there are fences around the walls giving the impression of a prison. The pieces can be moved around and give a fine impression of the bullring in the final act. Eyre, always a man of the theatre, in the final scene, after Don Jose stabs Carmen, shows the interior of the bullring with a dead bull. Very effective.
The chorus and the Met Orchestra conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado are superb as are the production values.
You can still catch Women on the Verge on the weekend with Tosca on Friday, Manon on Saturday and Brunhilde (Die Walküre) on Sunday.
The 2014 production of Carmen by George Bizet was streamed by the Metropolitan Opera on January 18, 2021. For more information visit: www.metopera.org