Saturday, January 15, 2011

The last seduction / Old school

Carmen -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/9/2010
Vizin, Hong, Jovanovich, Relyea / Gardner
Carmen -- Metropolitan Opera, 1/5/2011
Rachvelishvili, Hong, Alagna, Croft / Gardner

It's not entirely true that you can't fake sex appeal: Elina Garanca did a pretty good job of it last season in this production's debut. But there's no true substitute for the real thing, and Hungarian mezzo Viktoria Vizin offered more of it last month than, well, any Carmen here in at least a generation.

There are other sides, of course, and other Carmens have shown her well as a man-eating, tragic, musical, or temperamental character. But Vizin showed what these interesting and even hypnotic Carmens have had us overlooking -- the power of basic seductiveness. It helps that she looks terrific on stage, but that's just the beginning. Vizin's Carmen has a certain lightness to her shifting moods, making each of her advances more delectable caprice than heavyhanded play. With this comes a delight and engagement in the moment, so that -- despite the obligatory and mildly ridiculous Gelb-era interpolated humping -- her in-jail seduction of Brandon Jovanovich's Jose is, for the first time in long memory, actually hot. It's a seduction, not a browbeating -- and again in Act II. There, for example, as she sings of the joys of the open road and "la liberte", Vizin's Carmen isn't lecturing Jose, but really trying to get him to share her anticipated pleasure. Jose, then, isn't necessarily chasing some disaster: lust, this time, explains things well enough.

The particular Jose in December was Brandon Jovanovich, who despite an announced indisposition was again a more interesting spinto than one might have expected. The contrast with Alagna was also interesting: both show Jose's inner torment, but Jovanovich seems more a decent soldier dragged fatally off the straight and narrow, while Alagna (as ever, it seems) is aware of the doom within him from the beginning. Micaela, for the latter, is an impossible evasion, and there's a periodic resignation in his downward journey that's terrifying.

This month's performances returned (from last season's premiere cast) Alagna, and though he sounded less fresh than his recent standard, he again made the finale almost too believable. His Carmen, this time, was a hitherto unheard mezzo named Anita Rachvelishvili, who apparently got a mixed reception last season at La Scala. Rachvelishvili, debuting here because of Kate Aldrich's pregnancy, has from the first some resemblance to the previous-century stars one may spot in the Met's concourse-level picture gallery. But her dark prominent eyes and retro figure aren't the extent of the time warp: Rachvelishvili (do I really have to keep spelling this out?) sings with a rich sound and commanding, not-quite-tasteful individuality of colors and phrasing that, in itself, makes for as effective a Carmen as any of her predecessors'. And while she's not one for the up-to-date engagement of Garanca or the pure seductive appeal of Vizin, the Georgian mezzo moves gamely around, not at all at odds with the production's demands as Borodina was.

*     *     *

The star of both shows, though, may have been local favorite Hei-Kyung Hong. Last season's Traviata showed her as a still-intelligent but audibly aging soprano, but these Micaelas were rather more flattering. If Hong is aging, she is doing so gracefully -- at least in a part that doesn't foreground virtuosity -- and the audible limitations seem to frame ever the more interesting artist. Direct youthful appeal doesn't, it turns out, require an obviously youthful voice.

Both Escamillos sang and acted their parts well, with Dwayne Croft (substituting for an ill Paulo Szot) a much more expressively smitten toreador than usual. Meanwhile British conductor Edward Gardner took, intentionally or not, sort of the ideal approach in following Nezet-Seguin's electrifying debut. Where the French-Canadian was almost wild in scope and tempi, Gardner takes a measured and almost chamber view of Bizet's opera -- everything in its place -- until the deadly climax. With therefore no question of direct comparison, the thought of the previous conductor didn't impinge too much on enjoyment of these well-led evenings.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.