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Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
01/05/2011 -  and January 8, 13, 2011
Georges Bizet Carmen
Anita Rachvelishvili (Carmen), Roberto Alagna (Don José), Hei-Kyung Hong (Micaëla), Dwayne Croft (Escamillo), Joyce El-Khoury (Frasquita), Margaret Thompson (Mercédès), Scott Scully (Le Remendado), Malcolm MacKenzie (Le Dancaïre), Keith Miller (Zuniga), Michael Todd Simpson (Moralès), Maria Kowroski (Dancer), Martin Harvey (Dancer)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Edward Gardner (Conductor)
Richard Eyre (Production), Rob Howell (Set and Costume Designer), Peter Mumford (Lighting Designer), Christopher Wheeldon (Choreographer)

Richard Eyre’s production of Bizet’s masterpiece, Carmen, which premiered at the Met last New Year’s eve, returned this season for a total of 13 performances featuring rotating casts. Eyre’s update of the setting to Franco’s Spain gives the violence of the story added resonance. Although the predominant feel of the production is one of too many bricks, the curved and revolving jagged walls and 20th Century uniforms created an air of cinematic neo-realism that served to throw the evolving passion of Don José for Carmen into stark relief. There was one glaring misstep: the final tableau, in which the set revolves to reveal the crowd surrounding Escamillo as he stands over the slaughtered bull in the ring, juxtaposed against our last image of Don José pathetically clutching Carmen’s lifeless body, felt somewhat gratuitous and heavy handed. The switch in focus to the toreador also vitiated the tremendous emotional and musical impact of the psychological unraveling of Don José and the resulting murder of Carmen. That being said, this is a fine production and it’s good to see the back of its predecessor, a garish overstuffed extravaganza by Franco Zeffirelli.

This run of performances marks the Metropolitan Opera debut of Anita Rachvelishvili, the 26-year old Georgian mezzo-soprano whose meteoric rise to international fame was launched last year when Daniel Barenboim cast her as Carmen for the opening night at La Scala. On the Met stage, she was a smoldering, sensual and rather feral Carmen, convincing as seductress, survivor, and fatalist. Her portrayal was particularly fine in the last act. In contrast to Elīna Garanča, who sang the role earlier this season and also last season, this was not a glamorous Carmen. Both in manner and physical appearance Rachvelishvili evoked memories of Anna Magnani. And she has a voice to match – rich and sultry with a vibrant and beautifully colored lower range.

After experiencing some vocal difficulties in the first two acts, her Don José, Roberto Alagna, returned after the intermission in excellent voice. His familiar plangent sweetness was much in evidence, and he sang with unforced power and an easy blooming top. Mr. Alagna used his considerable dramatic talent to full effect throughout the evening, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the role as always. He conveyed the escalating torment, jealousy and desperation of Don José both vocally and dramatically – most effectively in Jose’s descent into madness in act four. As was evident in his recent appearance as Don Carlo, Mr. Alagna, is an audience favorite at the Met, and rightly so.

Dwayne Croft, a last minute replacement for the indisposed Paolo Szot, brought the requisite glamour and swagger to Escamillio. He sang with a full rich sound and elegant legato. Croft is a superb artist, both vocally and dramatically, who has had a long and distinguished association with the Met. It would be good to see a lot more of him. Hei-Kyung Hong’s bright shining soprano effectively conveyed the sweetness and innocence of Micaëla with a lyrical line and expressive colors, especially in the middle of her range. Keith Miller, in the role of Zuniga, was another standout, with his rich bass-baritone, smooth legato, and characteristic charisma. The Met chorus under chorus master Donald Palumbo, joined here by the children’s chorus led by Anthony Piccolo, performed, as always, with precision and brio. Edward Gardner, Music Director of the English National Opera, led the Met Orchestra in a spirited and richly idiomatic reading that maintained both rhythmic drive and textural clarity. He also ably supported the singers.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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