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Sunday, September 4, 2016

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Carmen

The most popular opéra-comique of all time has a bloody ending.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The gypsy dance opens Act II of Carmen at the Met.
Photo © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Met offers Bizet's sunny, blood-drenched portrait of love and jealousy in Spain as a sort of winter warmer in the depths of January. Yep. She's back.

What is Carmen?
All the world moves through Bizet's version of Seville, from the marching flag-waving children in the first act to the fleet-footed bullfighter Escamillo. The score is packed end-to-end with familiar musical moments yet in the hands of a skilled conductor it comes to life and becomes more than a sum of its parts.

What's Carmen about?
Carmen proves that love at first sight can be deadly. An ordinary soldier named Don José becomes obsessed and infatuated with the title character, a free-spirited Gypsy. She leaves him for a wealthy and pompous bullfighter. He kills her outside the bullring in a fit of jealous rage.

What's the music like?
From the first bars of the overture to the last bars of the first act this is one of the most beautiful, energetic and tuneful operas ever written. That's not hyperbole. From familiar tunes like the Act I Habañera to the "Toreador Song," "Flower Song" and the the "Card Scene", this is literally a string of familiar melodies that are ubiquitous, not just in the world of opera but in the world's popular culture.

Why should I see it?
Carmen has it all: memorable tunes, a compelling plot and a score that sticks close to French classicism while drinking deeply of the rhythms and meters of its Spanish setting. George Bizet's last work (he died shortly after it premiered) is one of the most popular operas in the repertory, and rightfully so.

Who's in it?
French mezzos Sophie Koch and Clémentine Margaine take on the title role on alternating nights. Marcelo Àlvarez is an unsympathetic Don José. The Met is giving heavy push to Maria Agresta in the role of Micäela, the "good girl" that José spurns to follow his bliss. Dan Ettinger and Louis Langrée will conduct the performances.

How's the production?
Popular. This staging by Sir Richard Eyre keeps the score intact while using the common trope of setting the opera during the Spanish Civil War. A rotating set captures the transitory and shifting action of the plot, while dancers doing a pas de deux under a blood-light remind the audience that this opera won't have a happy ending.

When does it open?
Carmen returns to the Met on January 19, 2017.

Where can I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Which recording should I get?
Recording Recommendations: Carmen's elusive quality extends to the recording studio, where a number of all-star teams have gone in to make the ideal recording of Bizet's opera, only to come up woefully short. Here are two worth hearing:

Chor et Orchestre de la Radiodiffusion de France, cond. Thomas Beecham (EMI/WBC, 1959)
Victoria De los Angeles is superb, sensual and deeply human in the title role. Gedda, always at home in French repertory, is at his finest in this early recording. Micaëla and Escamillo are not star singers, but both understand the part thoroughly and sing in idiomatic French. Sir Thomas Beecham shows his vast experience as an opera conductor in this perfectly paced performance.

London Symphony Orchestra cond. Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon, 1977) 
The late Claudio Abbado and the LSO play like an orchestra shot out of a cannon, with a rapid Prologue and quick pacing throughout the opera. Placído Domingo is in the prime of his voice. Ditto Sherrill Milnes, as the swaggering bullfighter. Teresa Berganza has a smaller voice than most Carmens, but the force and intelligence behind her performance bring depth to the character. Ileana Cotrubas might be the best Micaëla on disc. Superb.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.