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Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Road to Seville: Getting Carmen Right

Considering that Bizet's opera is one of the most important (and popular) pieces in the repertory, the Met has had a long struggle to stage a Carmen worthy of the work's reputation.

Rush Hour in Seville: the Zeffirelli Carmen.
Photo by Winnie Klotz © 1996 The Metropolitan Opera
The problems began in 1972 with a staging starring James McCracken and Marilyn Horne. Despite a dynamic performance in the pit by Leonard Bernstein, Met audiences didn't like the austere sets by Czech designer Josef Svoboda. However, McCracken and Horne made a decent impresson in the leads, and a live recording was made, the Met's first for Deutsche Grammophon.

Undeterred, the company bounced back with a new staging in 1986, designed by Sir Peter Hall.

Sir Peter (who was just off a disastrous 1983 Bayreuth production of Wagner's Ring) cast his wife, mezzo Maria Ewing in the title role. Ms. Ewing had the smoldering dark eyes and looks to play a convincing Carmen, but not the voice. (When the production was filmed, she was replaced by Agnes Baltsa.)

For better or for worse, that performance was released for posterity. (I saw it when I was a graduate student living in Boston, when I used to rent operas on videotape from Tower Records. Those were the days.) The tape shows an ugly, gray and brown production that looked like it was being performed on a set left over from Don Carlo.

The Hall production of the opera was a bomb, but it wasn't the worst Carmen production in Met history. That honor goes to the 1996 staging of the opera by Franco Zeffirelli, which had gorgeous show curtains, streamers everywhere, and utter chaos on the stage as the audience tried to pick the leading performers out of the milling throng. Zeffirelli recast the work in bright Mediterranean colors and turned Seville into the operatic equivalent of Times Square at rush hour.

There were casting problems, too. Placído Domingo was an acceptable Don José. But Waltraud Meier, a German mezzo best known for her work in Wagner's Parsifal, proved to be a poor choice for the title role. (Denyce Graves, her eventual replacement, fared much better.) James Levine conducted at a breakneck tempo, used the recitatives instead of spoken dialogue, and slashed all the little extra scenes that give Carmen its depth. This was Carmen "lite."

The Met finally got a new Carmen last season. Done by Richard Eyre, it bumps the action of the opera up to the Spanish Civil War (not a new idea), bathed the action in blood-red light, and used the Met turntable to re-draw war-torn Spain as a series of rotating sets that actually contributed to the story.

With a strong cast (the leads were Roberto Alagna and Elina Garanca) this production was a success, both in the opera house and in the Met's Live in HD broadcast. Yannick Nezet-Seguin led an energetic performance. He used the recitatives when it suited, but broke out the spoken dialogue for the crucial later scenes.

The Met opens the first revival of the Richard Eyre Carmen tonight, with Elina Garanca in the title role opposite Brandon Jovanovich as Don Jose. John Relyea lends his formidable bass to the role of Escamillo.

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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.