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Smoke Got in his Eyes!

New York
Metropolitan Opera
02/04/2008 -  and February 8, 13, 16, 19, 23, 27, March 01
Georges Bizet: Carmen
Olga Borodina (Carmen), Marcelo Alvarez (Don José), Maja Kovalevska (Micaela), Lucio Gallo (Escamillo), Stephen Gaertner (Morales), Jeffrey Wells (Zuniga), Rachelle Durken (Frasquita), Edyta Kulczak (Mercédès), John Hancock (Le Dancaïre), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Le Remendado)
Ana Anni (costume designer), Duane Schuler (lighting designer), Maria Benitz (choreographer), Donald Palumbo (chorus master), Elena Doria (children’s chorus director), Animals supervised by All-Tame Animals Inc., Metropolitan Orchestra, Emmanuel Villaume (conductor)
Peter McClintock (stage director), Franco Zeffirelli (production and set designer)

In 134 years, nobody has ever said: "Oh, not another Carmen!" Like Hamlet, Bizet’s opera is puzzling, elegant, extravagant. And like Shakespeare’s words, Bizet’s music is more than dramatic: it has a beauty that constantly surprises, always incarnates itself.

True, the first producer opined that the music sounded “Cochin-Chinese,” but today, the harmonies are astringent, the orchestra can be dazzling (if constantly too quick under Emmanuel Villaume) and the tunes combine French cabaret with the equivalent of Spanish rhythms.

The oft-parodied “Toreador Song” is more than a bravura aria: the harmonies are transformed, the choral give it a new input. Its final reprise gives it sharp irony. Does Micaela’s Act 3 prayer have a sense of the maudlin? Well, the character of Micaela is something of a Goody Two-Shoes, but Bizet transforms her aria to one of the most luscious in the repertory.

To say the least, Carmen is no one-dimensional heroine. She can be played as harlot, thief, lover; she can be passionate and cold, and (in the most modern translations), the ultimate liberated woman: "libre elle est née et libre elle mourra”: Free she was born and free she will die.

The Metropolitan’s production which opened last night is hardly a new one, based on Franco Zeffirelli’s extravagant set and staging. But our new Carmen, Russian-born Olga Borodina, while her proportions were a bit too Wagnerian, she gave beautifully shaped performance. So seductive is Carmen that sopranos, like Victoria de los Angeles, can be highly effective. But when Ms. Borodina was in her low range, or even growling her imprecations, one knew that Bizet made no mistake in assigning this to a mezzo. Ms. Borodina's dark-colored voice was not huge, in the Habanera, she had a sensuality, a purring quality which transcended pure sex.

Ms. Borodina was more fun than femme fatale. Remember that this was Opéra Comique, and until the end, it reveled in comic brigands, comic toreros and an electric heroine. Ms. Borodina’s top moments came in her delightful trios with Mercédès and Frasquita. They pranced and rollicked and "tra-la-la’ed" with the best of them. And in the Act Two “Nous avons en tête une affaire,” we had a mélange of patter song with the most luscious middle section which could only be written by Bizet.

Her voice was more alluring than luscious, and in the last scene, her proportions and contempt for Don José made him seem more the stuttering loser than ever. But if Ms. Borodina lacked the star quality which garnered countless shouts of encore, it was a fine piece of drama.

Marcelo Alvarez was the love-stricken Don José. From the first smoke blown in his face by our favorite Gypsy cigarette-roller, his tenor voice was more operatically thrilling. Mismatched with Ms. Borodina, he had a gentleness in “Parle-moi de ma mère” with Micaela.

Maja Kovalevska was that poor little girl who climbs every mountain to bring Don José back to his dying mother. But her lyrical soprano was unforced, never shrill. As for Escamillo, the less said about Lucio Gallo the better. His was hardly a heroic presence, and the voice was badly forced. Perhaps it was a bad night, perhaps Ms. Borodina should use her own husband, Ildar Abdrazakov the next time.

Now to the production. Franco Zeffirelli’s nine-year-old sets and movement have been ripe for ridicule. But I found the extravagance, from the ever-changing scrim portraits to the settings riveting. The first act plateau of Seville looked to me like a village in Ethiopia’s Ogaden Desert, yet the movements were anything but barren. It was an extravaganza of men, women, children, burros (two, including the experienced Burro Number Two from that other Seville opera, The Barber of Seville some weeks ago), dogs (two), horses (two which would increase to almost a dozen in the last act), and of course dozens of tobacco-workers.

Act Three had such a remote and forbidden look in the deep Pyrenees that one was astonished at the people who found their way to the hiding place. Micaela padded her way over the treacherous slopes, Escamillo dropped in for an aria or two, then left. (One would hardly have been surprised to see Nancy Pelosi and the Rockettes come in for a flask.)

The last act opens like the Ascot Scene in My Fair Lady, parasols and all. Before the murder.

A minor complain in the dancing. The flamenco was energetic enough but the rhythms are faux-Spanish à la French. The chemistry was like hip-hop danced to John Coltrane.

Yet why quibble over a few missteps? After all, this was Carmen. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, who gave up Wagner for Bizet after hearing it: “The music is wicked, refined, and always fantastic.”

Harry Rolnick



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