The Met mounts a well sung but dramatically unconvincing ‘Carmen’

Operagoers have long grown accustomed to sacrificing dramatic integrity for
a rewarding musical experience. Joan Sutherland was in her ‘60s when she sang
Gilda in scenes from Verdi’s Rigoletto at a Met Gala concert in
1987. Her singing brought the house down, though it’s unlikely that anyone in
the theater believed this could be the title character’s teenage daughter.

In today’s era of the Met’s high definition simulcasting, it’s growing
increasingly difficult for the company to conduct business as usual. Intense
visual scrutiny of the cameras pressure performers to act as credibly as they
sing, and to look the part of the characters they portray. Music may
still rule in opera, but in Peter Gelb’s brave new world of simulcasting,
seeing is believing.

Casting the full-figured Anita Rachvelishvili as the iconic temptress Carmen
in the Met’s Nov. 1 HD simulcast did not do much to enhance the dramatic
integrity of the story. The Georgian mezzo-soprano has the voice for the role,
to be sure — with a handsome middle range and sufficient weight in her pedal
tones to add chills down the spine when she flips the fortune card and reads
aloud, “La mort!” What was lacking in Rachvelishvili’s performance was
the raw sexual magnetism required to bring the character Carmen to life.

When Richard Eyre’s production first ran in 2009, the sultry siren El?na
Garan?a played the title role. Here, both singing and looks were equally
convincing. Granted, Garan?a’s unforgettable portrayal is a tough act to
follow. But even ignoring the inevitable comparisons to the prior production,
there was simply too little in Rachvelishvili’s performance to convey her
character’s wild, dangerous and sexually alluring side.

The Habanera (sung sweetly though hardly seductively) fell flat,
while the Seguidilla generated insufficient heat to make plausible Don
JosÈ’s complicity in Carmen’s escape — for which he risks imprisonment.
Nor was there sufficient electricity in Rachvelishvili’s dance sequence
during the supposedly eroticTriangle Song at Lillas Pastia’s Tavern.
As the pace of the music reached boiling point, I was sure she’d climb onto one
of the tables and dance, as had Garan?a. She did not. The little dancing we
did see from her (on terra firma) would not likely have gotten her
past the first round of Dancing With The Stars.

Ultimately, theater audiences across 69 countries had to be content with
Rachvelishvili’s formidable vocal effort — a pleasure, indeed, but one
perhaps better suited to radio broadcast than visual simulcast.

Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Don JosÈ, a bit stiff throughout the first act,
grew increasingly convincing as the obsessed lover, driven to extremes over his
ill-fated passion for Carmen.

In JosÈ we must sense the ambivalence of a once-proud soldier who is faced
with a choice between a safe but boring life (with plain-Jane MicaÎla) and an
exciting but dangerous life (with by the gypsy Carmen). When he does not choose
wisely, JosÈ must be seen as a pathetic loser whose self-respect begins to
dwindle away — much like the money of an inveterate gambler at the dice
tables. In short, JosÈ’s life has gone to craps. Antonenko made this breakdown
believable, and by the end of the third act he morphs into a fanatical,
menacing stalker.

As a singer, Antonenko gave two performances: the one in the first half of
the opera, where his voice lacked subtlety and he frequently clipped the ends
of his phrases to wet his lips (such as in the first act duet with MicaÎla);
and the second half, where he found his voice in all its glory and used his
strong spinto tenor to add body to the emotional outbursts. I shall remember
him for the latter.

Simulcast viewers who missed the opportunity to hear Anita Hartig as Mimi in
La BohËme last April (she took ill and had to be replaced) got their
chance to hear the Romanian soprano play JosÈ’s steadfast fiancÈe, MicaÎla.

Hartig’s exquisite delivery of her signature Act Three aria Je dis que
rien ne m’Èpouvante
, sung as her character makes a last ditch attempt to
free JosÈ from the grip of the deadly Carmen, was the singular most moving
number in the production. Hartig’s tender lyric soprano captured all the
nuances of expression Bizet has to offer in this work. Her breathtaking
decrescendo on the aria’s final words, protÈgez moi, Seigneur
(Protect me, O Lord), brought a lump to my throat. The profuse applause from
the Met Opera audience at the end of the number said it all.

As the flamboyant toreador, a handsome and self-assured Ildar Abdrazakov at
once captured the testosterone-charged persona of Escamillo — in looks as
well as voice. Abdrazakov’s Toreador Song at Lillas Pastia’s Tavern
in Act Two was the highlight of an otherwise unspectacular first half of the
performance. Though he tended to cheat the aria’s sharply dotted-rhythms in
favor of easier-to-sing triplets, Abdrazakov delivered his signature aria with
a deep and meaty bass-baritone that made the listener sit up and take notice.

Keith Miller, reprising his role of Zuniga from the company’s 2009
production, is an excellent actor whose dynamic onstage demeanor injects anima
into the roles roles he portrays. Using his firm bass-baritone and strong
visual presence, Miller crafted a strongly believable (and downright sleezy)
captain of the guard.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better pair of supporting singer-actors
than soprano Kiri Deonarine (Frasquita) and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano
(MercÈdËs), as Carmen’s colorful gypsy cohorts.

The dynamic duo performed exceptionally well in their ensemble numbers, such
as the quick-tongued, rapid patter-like dialogue of the delightful quintet
Nous avons en tÍte une affaire — which they articulated with great
clarity of diction. (Abdrazakov could have learned much from the pair’s
precision singing in the crisply dotted-rhythmic figures here.) But the true
tour de force came in the charming Fortune-Telling Duet from Act
Three, where the gypsies playfully coax the cards into “revealing” their future
lovers and destinies. This number was not only sung beautifully, but provided a
captivating visual experience.

Eyre’s production team, spearheaded by Set Designer Rob Howell, once again
used a rotating stage (a technique that now bears Eyre’s signature).
This proved useful in making smooth transitions between scenes and augmented
the look and scope of the crowd scenes such as in the public
square during Act One. In fact, almost everything in this production was staged
effectively. I especially enjoyed the scene where the cigarette girls disembark
en mass from the factory, gushing forth as would water from an open

Also visually appealing was Eyre’s staging of the gypsy smugglers’
winding mountain hideaway in Act Three, aided by Lighting Director Peter
Mumford’s hushed bluish hues that hinted of the arrival of dawn. I remain at
a loss, however, to understand why Eyre shifts the story from 1820s Spain to
the 1930s, considering his avoidance of any tangible (or implied) connection to
either the Spanish Civil War or the rise of fascism on the eve of World War

Granada-born conductor Pablo Heras-Casado opted to conduct without a baton,
which is hardly optimal for an orchestra the size of what’s called for in
Bizet’s score. But then, the tightly disciplined Met Orchestra could probably
keep it together if the the musicians could only see the conductor’s eyebrows.
For my tastes, Heras-Casado’s tempos too often bordered on the wild side, as
if trying to keep up with a troupe of flamenco dancers high on amphetamines. I
also found his direction of the Habanera to be too straightforward,
resulting in a sanitized dance rhythm lacking in style and ethnic substance.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was up to task even during Heras-Casado’s
most outrageous tempos, and shined repeatedly in its individual efforts.
Flutist Denis Bouriakov’s sublime tone in the famous Entr’acte to
Act Two, accompanied mellifluously by harp, provided dancers Maria Kowroski and
Martin Harvey plenty of inspiration with which to shape a stunning pas de
. Also impressive was Bouriakov’s shapely and cleanly articulated
16th notes in the Prelude to Act Three.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, augmented by a feisty and well-staged chorus
of children, sounded wonderfully throughout the performance. I especially
enjoyed watching the staging of the children during the first act changing of
the guard scene as they mimicked the trumpets.

Live in HD Director Matthew Diamond projected the customary close-up shots
of the principal characters, but this time the cameras also panned out during
the large chorus numbers affording simulcast viewers a sense of
size and proportion of the choruses. I thought Diamond’s decision to zoom in on
Rachvelishvili several times as she lay on the floor, legs spread apart waiting
to engulf JosÈ, was a bit over the top. (No pun intended.)

David Abrams
CNY CafÈ Momus

This review first appeared at CNY CafÈ
. It is reprinted with the permission of the

image_description=Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen [Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]
product_title=The Met mounts a well sung but dramatically unconvincing ‘Carmen’
product_by=A review by David Abrams
product_id=Above: Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen [Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]