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.