Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The song of Carmen

Carmen -- Metropolitan Opera, 1/21/10
Garanča, Frittoli, Alagna, Kwiecien / Nézet-Séguin
Carmen -- Metropolitan Opera, 2/9/10
Borodina, Kovalevska, Jovanovich, Rhodes / Altinoglu

Thirty-four-year-old French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, though much praised in this Met debut run, deserves, I think, even more. It was his electrifying work in the pit that drove the first performances of this new Richard Eyre production from Carmen's exhilaratingly-taken prelude to its gripping, devastating end, allowing the singers to excel -- perhaps even beyond their everyday capabilities.

Everyone who's interested has, I think, actually seen this first cast live or at the movies, so I'll be selective. Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca, for all her attractiveness, isn't a natural for the seductive and charismatic Carmen of the first acts. But she is game, and that counts for much: even though the public vamping of Act I is a bit overdone, her effort keeps the energy level high. And she is responsive to direction and characterization -- not least in the arc of Act II.

Carmen before this act has been all self-possession and bravado: her impulsive move for Don Jose was... what? A quick fancy, or perhaps a calculated show to get herself out of jail? Both, surely, but at Pastia's when she hears that Jose's just gotten out of the brig, she reacts strongly: other men are sent packing, and the smugglers are put off for the night with Carmen's not-quite-believed declaration that she's in love. Finally alone, we see Carmen finally drop her guard, anxiously attending to her toilette as she's caught up in unfeigned anticipation.

So of course she has a fit when Jose tries to cut their rendezvous short with his talk of the curfew -- it's the lover's natural hurt vanity and pleasure upon the fast ruin of a date. Garanca embodies the quick progression of these moods well, so that we feel with and for Carmen up to Jose's impassioned response in his Flower Song. And there -- at the point where Jose has made the heartfelt case for his love -- is where, at least in Eyre's production here, it all goes wrong for the two of them. Justified pique should have been melted by the Flower Song, and yet some daemon in Carmen rises up and will not have it. No, mere devotion isn't enough, she needs a bigger victory -- to take him wholly from his life. It can't end well, even if the production (nicely) adds a bit of Jose/Carmen love in a Christopher Wheeldon ballet number preceding Act III.

Garanca is a clear vessel for this drama, and again impressively energetic and responsive in Act IV's climax, but her real success is musical. She has an A-grade voice, but it's not one that overpowers on sheer sound. Instead Garanca's instrument handles well: between her and Nézet-Séguin, the rhythmic command and energetic phrasing of Carmen's dance-inflected music is terrific.

Tenor Roberto Alagna is variable and I don't know how he was for the moviecast, but on this night he was, as so often in French, mesmerizing. Yes, he pushes a bit for the bigger-voiced part of Don Jose, but it's still musical -- and quite of a piece with his overpoweringly intense portrayal. By Act IV he was so convincingly unhinged that I was glad he wasn't (as originally scheduled) on stage with the woman who actually had just left him.

As Micaela, Barbara Frittoli was impressively convincing in devout goodness and moral courage despite not really having the top notes any more. Very good performance, iffy sing. Similarly Mariusz Kwiecien has the physical swagger and charm of a good Escamillo but was too soft-grained in sound to make a similar vocal impact. They, like Garanca and Alagna, did -- as appropriate for a new director-focused production -- maintain the dramatic thread throughout.

*     *     *

That was the original cast. February's performances featured a complete turnover among the leads, including the conductor, and offered an entirely different experience. Those looking for the dramatic snap for which this production was praised in the press may have been disappointed -- even though every single lead singer had a better voice than his or her predecessor.

Olga Borodina's voice has its limits these days, but Carmen's not a part to test them. In aural luxury, if Garanca's is an A, Borodina's instrument is an A+, layered and seductive, with the I'm-not-sure-what that makes it, I think, the class of this great mezzo generation. But... well, she's not exactly bored, as she sort of seemed last time (the new production seems to prevent that), but Borodina doesn't really do energetic physical acting. It's not really because she's less svelte than Garanca -- Borodina just doesn't seem comfortable doing all that movement, or in fact anything much beyond standing (commandingly) and singing (even more commandingly). Therefore she dominated and illuminated (as even Susan Graham had not) the season's earlier revival of the Damnation of Faust -- which threatened to shrink its singers into invisibility -- but in this show Borodina's old-school monumental style turned the newfound particularity and dramatic liveliness of the premiere into a standard (if dramatically lit) Carmen revival.

And yet it was, as noted, quite a well-sung revival. Besides Borodina (whose opulent instrument must have been a revelation for the surprisingly novice-filled audience even if the drama wasn't), Brandon Jovanovich, whom I first saw in City Opera's 2007 Cavalleria Rusticana, made his Met debut in this run as Don Jose. He has real spinto tenor force, very nice sound, and a surprising amount of finesse -- very promising. He sang with real fervor, too, but without the full-contact physical interaction of the original cast's Act IV, it was hard for his non-vocal dramatic side to get full play. Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska absolutely stole the show in Borodina's last (2008) Carmen and she comes close to doing it again, with the largest ovation and the best-defined character. Finally Teddy Tahu Rhodes, though not much bigger-voiced than Kwiecien, brought off a larger-than-life Escamillo thanks partly to his larger-than-life frame.

If Nézet-Séguin was the conducting find of the season, another Francophone conductor, French-Armenian (by way of Turkey) Alain Altinoglu was "merely" very good. He, too, offered a nice snappy prelude, but over the course of the evening wasn't quite as live and attentive as his predecessor, perhaps at times letting the singers slack a bit on rhythms. Would Nézet-Séguin have made a less conventional evening out of the revival, or did the casts simply find suitable conductors for their sum tendencies? Who knows -- though I'm curious to know how Viktoria Vizin did replacing Borodina for the first two Altinoglu/Jovanovich performances.

*     *     *

Two more performances remain -- April 28 and May 1. These were supposed to feature Angela Gheorghiu, but she eventually dropped even these Alagna-free performances. I'm sure Kate Aldrich will be fine as a replacement -- and probably closer to Garanca's take than Borodina's -- though I'd hoped to hear Tamara Mumford, on whose strange relation to the femme fatale I've already posted.


  1. I saw Garanca and Alagna in the Carmen at Covent Garden last year and, although normally I'm not a fan of Carmen, I found they made this opera exciting for me. I agree in the main with your review (excepting the parts about the production, on which I can't comment because I haven't seen the one at the Met).

    Garanca was the Carmen I have been waiting for as I have found every other mezzo I have seen in the role hasn't convinced me at all. Technically Alagna pushes and tends to sing through his nose, however, in London he sang with a lot of conviction and passionate fire, I was bowled over. I will definitely be buying their DVD when it comes out later this year.


  2. I was at the (January 21) show and agree with your observations. I've generally been something of a heretic on Carmen, appreciating the music, understanding the appeal but, frankly, never coming close to being captivated or even consistently entertained over the course of the entire opera. One often ends up going but I wouldn't say I've been "waiting for a Carmen". This performance was thrilling from first note to last. The only weakness was Kwizcen's Escamillio, for the reasons yo suggest. I'm huge Frittoli fan and on this night she was more than fully satisfying even is she did not have every last note.

    I will readily admit Alagna's variability but on this night he sang the best Don Jose I've heard from him, (quite impressively so as the first one saw him in a much younger incarnation in the fall of 2000 - the 2000-2001 was imho one of the best if not the best Met season of the last 15 I've been going, but that's a separate matter). The production was very very effective. Usually at a Carmen my mind wanders and one of the things it often wanders to is the lack of appeal of the story. Objectively the story still lack appeal for me but in this incarnation, during the performance it was never less than completely involving. Obviously Nezet-Seguin deserves enormous credit for this for as well. I absolutely agree that his work, even in light of all the accolades was quite seriously underrated. His Don Carlos next year promises to be one the highlights of the season

    Last, but certainly not least, we get to Garanca, and hear I have a slight disagreement. Since running into her Cherubino in Vienna a few years ago (I should have been but was completely unaware of her existence, much less rising stature at the time) I have been a huge fan and under no circumstances would contemplate missing anything she does. I was certainly planning to go to the new production but her presence (even though she's back next season) made it something of an unconditional imperative. I, like many, was skeptical about her as Carmen but being more of a Garanca then Carmen fan was not I was hardly deterred. In the event she easily exceed all expectations and you provide a quite exceptional description of her work here. The disagreement I refer to above, however, relates to the quality of her voice in and of itself and vis-a-vis Borodina's. Obviously there is a great deal of subjectivity here.I don't disagree with you about the opulence and a could be pressed to give Borodina an A+. In doing so, however, I would have to give Garanca and A++, for there is plenty of opulence there too (and the quantity of such can certainly increase - the first time I heard Borodina - the very unexciting Carmen of the 2000 performance mentioned above she was already older then Garanca) but the very distinctive character, specific color and flexibility of the voice make it, imo, the most stunning instrument on stage today. I really like her personality as well and though this will not necessarily translate into effective portrayals of specific characters, it most certainly did in this case.

    Borodina by contrast, though she certainly can (and usually does) do "oppulent" and she can do "commanding" , tends to disappoint far too often. Specifically as Carmen and to a lesser extent as Eboli (though it would be great if we could switch her into next season's DC, where the female casting bids to bring down what should otherwise be a great show). Naturally, Garanca's Eboli should be something to look forward to, though one hopes she takes her time getting there.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.