Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

Carmen est un oiseau rebele

Today we were able to see the Met’s new Carmen in a new production staged Richard Eyre with sets designed by Rob Howell and costumes by Irene Bohan. This production is a welcomed changed from the Zefirelli production for 10 years ago that simply was just ugly. The opera, updated to sometime around the 40s is still very traditional and the stage machinery is used to create locales within a unit set. I know a lot has been said about the production already and many people have come against it because it is too traditional. To those who are pulling their hair because the Met again put out another traditional production I want to remind that the reggie movement now 20-30 years old in Europe (some would say that it started with Wieland Wagner and thus is 50 years old already)  and therefore these kind of productions are not avant garde or provocative anymore. In truth, they are now the new “traditional” productions over there; add the fact that even after these many years, audiences still reject them soundly and you are not going to get too much pity from me. So, in my opinion, cry all you want, bad art might be art, but it is still bad and some things do not need to be imported. So take what I say with a grain of salt, if you are expecting the Met to “finally” take on the reggie productions that have been all  the rage (in both senses) in Europe, then you are going to hate this new Carmen. I fucking loved it.

Now that you have sat through my little moment, I do want to say to those who feel like me, RUN to get your ticket. The sets and the costume design is truly inspired at times. I would say that this production of Carmen improved 100% on the old Zefirelli production. If you are in NYC, or planning a visit, this is the one production this year that I think you should not miss. Truly amazing stuff in my opinion.

I’m going to start with the chorus and the orchestra because I am starting to sound like a broken record: these people can do no wrong. The orchestra sounded amazing! They were sensitive to the singing and their playing made as much impact as the singing upstairs. Same thing for the chorus: are these people capable of poor singing? I believe not. (Angela, you looked amazing by the way). This chorus is such an improvement from the chorus from 10 years ago it is amazing to believe they are from the same institution. Congratulations to the Met for getting themselves one hell of a chorus, I hope you treat those people with as much respect and defference then you treat your soloist, because they are making your starts look a lot better than what (sometimes) they are. Bravi to all, and a big bravo to maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducted with the energy of a 20 year older.  The orchestra responded to his fast tempos and the score had an energy and thrust that I had not heard in a while. Yes, some people will say that he conducted like he needed to go pee (or worse), but you know? Carmen the opera  is like having sex, sometimes you do need to do it fast and hard. Bravo maestro; bravi tutti!

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When this production was announced my first reaction was these guys are doing Carmen without a Carmen, and then Gheorghiu threw her little shit fit, walked out like the spoiled brat she is said to be and opened the door for Elina Garanca. I listened to the performance on opening night via the Met’s free webcasts and I was not hopeful. Her take on the character was described and an ice queen and the performance didn’t sound idiomatic to me. I am happy to say that I have been won over by Garanca as Carmen, hell, not only was I won over but even my friend Ronizetti (who hates Carmen with a passion) did say that she was a fantastic Carmen. No, the performance was still not idiomatic, there were things here and there, but as I said elsewhere, those are things that come with time and experience, so I’m not going to mull over them. What I’ll say first is that none of the alleged ice queen business was in evidence, at least not to me.  She had the passion and the fire in her to do justice to the role, I simply did not see her Carmen as being icy, except in some sections when her treatment of Don Jose needed to be.  Her Habanera had enough sex appeal to be convincing, her Seguidille (unfortunately) missed the mark in the fact that it was much too direct. I missed the inner play, the innuendo and the teasing that could make this piece sparkle with sexual energy. Garanca’s Carmen seemed to come from a place of anger, she seemed more a caged lion than a caged bird. Garanca’s  Carmen was strong, free willed and not about to be bullied. This Carmen certainly packed a punch. Act 2 and 3 found Garanca doing some fine singing and some dancing as well, as her Carmen faced the situations, she hardened her stance and got nastier. I will not say that I agree with everything she did, but I did find her interpretation valid; Garanca certainly thought things through and created a character that was true to herself and her interpretation of her personality.  Act 4 found Garanca rivaling Ponselle as one of the sexiest Carmens in Met history. To say she looked amazing in that dress is to put it mildly. That dress, in my opinion is as amazing as the mythic Valentina dress that Ponselle wore and just as sexy. Ultimately, her Carmen was phenomenal, with enough spunk and Mediterranean flavor to please me and turn me into a convert. Brava.

Roberto Alagna (the only principal of the original cast to actually make it to today’s performance) was a magnificent foil to Garanca’s Carmen. His voice might be a tad light for the role, but he used it intelligently and passionately; ultimately giving us a Jose full of passion and pain. One thing that I also liked about him was his attention to the small moments in the drama. He remained  a committed Jose to the end. His singing showed moments of strain, something that I have come to expect from him. What I didn’t expect was for him to sing the Flower aria so well (and ellegantly), and include the pianissimo Bb. Now, I’m guessing he wanted to create an excuse for the shortness of his Bb (not that he needed, I thought the aria was executed beautifully) by saying that the Bb is actually not written piano but that everyone expects it that way and so on and so forth. I must say that I do not buy it; and I don’t buy it because 1) Alagna correctly pointed out that the orchestra is marked to play piano at this moment. What? did Bizet asked the orchestra to play piano so the tenor could wail that Bb like a calf missing his mother? and 2) There is a long tradition of French tenors singing these passages in voix mixte (some people call it falsetto, call it however you want it) and many French composers wrote passages just like this one in their operas so their tenors could showcase their expertise in voix mixte (Gounod and Massenet come to mind immediately).  As a French tenor, Alagna should know the history of French style, specially when it comes to his voice type. There was no need for Mr. Alagna to feel that he needed to excuse anything about his singing of the aria. Latter on, as the role got heavier, signs of strain did become more visible, but his commitment never wavered. Ultimately his Jose was not an over-sized hero, but more a human being.  I have seen Mr. Alagna in several roles, this is by far the best I have seen him sing in a while.

As Escamillo, we were expecting Mariusz Kwiecien (or the Hot Pole as he is known in certain circles) and we got Teddy Tahu Rhodes (or Teddy Bear as he has admitted he is called).  I have to say that the casting of  Mariusz puzzled me, not because he doesn’t have the physique du role, but because I see him as a Mozart baritone, more at home as the sexy Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva and Guglielmo. I see his voice as much too light for a role that is better served with a bass-baritone. Teddy Bear not only saved the day, but proved that he can be every bit the sexy Escamillo we were expecting and probably better suited vocally to the role. Yes, there was a troubling loss of focus in some of the extreme high notes on the role (let’s hope it was a case of nerves and not that he is trying to beef up the sound) but for the most part Teddy Bear was more than just a satisfactory replacement on the role; he packed his own brand of heat and I loved every second of it too.

I wish I could be so enthusiastic about Barbara Frittoli as Micaela, and believe me, I am up to a certain point. This role is usually cast with young up and comers and it is easily dismissed as a complete bore. The Met has a strong tradition of casting the role with veritable stars and excellent singers as well: Licia Albanese, Lucine Amara, Mirella Freni, Hei-Kyung Hong, Gheorghiu, Pilar Lorengar, Leona Mitchell, Katherine Malfitano, Katia Riciarelli are just a few of the names associated with the role at the Met. The casting of Frittoli as Micaela is not a strange one at the Met and certainly the role is withing the scope of her voice and her abilities. I’ll do you one better and say it is a blessing to see her singing repertoire that suits her voice better than all the Verdi she has been singing elsewhere. The problem is that apparently all that Verdi that has made her a star is catching up to her. She sounded effort-full (as opposed to effortless) and some of the higher passages had a hint of a wobble. Elsewhere, she was a fragile looking and shy Micaela. Her acting was never less that perfect for the character. Frittoli certainly understands what motivates Micaela and presented a role that made me love her, but her singing was not at the same level as her acting. I hope Frittoli will get back to her bread and butter roles (NOT heavy Verdi for sure) and fix the warning signs before it is too late and we are left to lament how such a wonderful singer squandered her talents singing repertoire that ended up costing her too much.

As always, the Met cast the small but incredibly important roles of Frasquita, Mercédès, Remendado, Dancaïre, Zuniga and Moralès from strength. In these roles Elizabeth Caballero (Frasquita), Sandra Piques Eddy (Mercédès), Keith Jameson (Remendado), Earle Patriarco (Dancaïre), Keith Miller (Zuniga) and Trevor Scheunemann (Moralès) showed that these roles need great artists as much as the principal roles or else the opera looses its balance; they all sang and acted amazingly well.  It was such a joy to hear the High C during the Toreador song executed perfectly and without strain. I want to also mention the 2nd act quintet and the Card scene as veritable highlights of the show and they were, no doubt, thanks to their participation. Bravi to all these artists.

It sounds bitchy that after all these compliments I should start complaining, but the fact is that there was one thing that truly bothered me about this Carmen: the edition. I believe the Met has the coaching resources and the clout to present operas in better editions and it is the 2nd time this season that they chose to show an opera in a questionable edition. There is no reason that I can think of for the Met to still be using those damn recitatives they should have gotten rid of 20 years ago. In 1996 they could blame Zefirelli and his dislike of Waltraud Meier and his opinion that her French sucked to go back to the recits. In 2010, what is their excuse? They no longer have Zefirelli and his bitching to blame. Certainly these are artists who have proved a certain affinity for the language, with one of them being a French native.  Moreover, this cast has remained mostly unchanged since the production was first announced, so what is the problem? Why can’t the Met bring themselves to do a Carmen as it was intended, with dialog. They could certainly not blame acoustics as they have very good acoustics, have done the show with dialog before and they also have a state of the art sound system that could be used to amplify the spoken voices and bring some relief to the artists. I certainly do not see a reason for some of the ugly transitions and bad story telling that I saw today. Let me give you an example:

Between the entrance of Remendado & Dancaïre in Act 2 and the quintet a couple of pages latter there is a certain amount of information that is provided that serves as a springboard for the quintet. Remendado and Dancaïre just came back from Gibraltar where they bought some merchandise and they were being expected at Lillas Pastia by Carmen, Mercédès and Frasquita, who are in cohorts with them to smuggle the goods. If you watched the Met’s Carmen today, you were not provided this info and were lead to believe that Remendado and Dancaïre are just a pair of bullies that showed up and slapped Mercédès and Frasquita into submission given the intense fear the 2 ladies had to show due to the lack of background. Not only was the information not provided, there was an ugly cut as well that made the quintet come out of nowhere and the interactions between the characters seem forced and artificial. Was this necessary? I mean, Truly? I applaud the Met for striving to provide productions that are strong, with good singers and actors; but when they package these elements in poorly wrapped musical editions they are still doing the singers, audience and the composers a disservice. Time to join the XXIst century kiddos… There is not need for audiences to have to suffer through the Giraud-composed recits anymore.

Carmen plays in the theaters again in an encore presentation, so check your local movie theaters for the information. The next HD presentation will be Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra on Frebruary 6. This promises to be quite interesting as it has Placido Domingo singing the baritone role of Boccanegra in a first for the opera and the Met. Like it or not, don’t miss it. I’ve been lead to believe it will be an interesting afternoon.

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January 16, 2010 - Posted by | Opera Review | , ,

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