Wookiee Hut Theatre Reviews presents:
Review by Diana, MaceVindaloo, BunchBox, Glenburnie, FengShui

Composer: Georges Bizet

Libretto: Henri Meilhac et Ludovic Halévy

Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Production: Richard Eyre

Set Design: Rob Howell

Choreography: Christopher Wheeldon

Costume Design: Rob Howell

Lighting: Peter Mumford

Starring: Elina Garanča (Carmen); Roberto Alagna (Don Jose); Barbara Frittoli (Michaela); Mariusz Kwiecien / Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Escamillio)

Rating: Death Star — blows 'em up!

Now and again, you are presented with something that alters the way you see parts of your world. For instance, you may find custard — that most loathful of nursery pabulum — repellent ... but then you are presented creme brulée, also a custard. Yet it's so different, so smooth and delicious, that you suddenly feel foolish for pushing away a whole class of foods because you had one bad, icky example. The way you see custard — and other things — changed irrevocably. And it's worth admitting you were wrong.

Opera is seen by many as pabulum-like, or at least screechy and full of fat ladies (the saying, "It ain't over till the fat lady sings," always comes to mind). It all seemed that there was a phase in US opera when sets were huge and the singers were these small bugs who stood in front of it and apparently screamed and screeched for attention.

Then about 30 years ago, singers became fitter, they learned to act, and the production became less and less about the sets. Composers would leave instructions on how things should be in their operas, and directors and designers were starting to ignore or interpret these, rather than following them slavishly. After all, what did Puccini or Mozart know about the potential of multimedia, or the tastes of people in a different continent at a different time, and why be so arrogant as to know what they'd want?

Some of the results have caused consternation from the equivalent of the Muppet Show's Statler and Waldorf crowd — the hecklers and self-appointed critics. And being that most of us knew so little about opera, we just assumed it sucked.

This Carmen is the creme brulée of opera — We loved this production of Bizet's Carmen so much that we bought extra tickets and forced friends to join us, and they loved it, too. Then we bought more tickets in the standing room (because there were no more seats available), and then also saw the HD projection in movie theaters. And when it is available for sale on DVD, we'll buy that, too!

The timing of this production was moved forward to the modern Spanish Civil War of the mid 1930s, rather than the 1830s. The setting is still Seville, a town occupied by soldiery and scraping by in an effort to lead normal lives. In many ways, time has stood still in Spain so that issues are similar, even over a century. This allowed for fewer corsets in costuming, and a grittier feel, rather than something made genteel for being set in an unrecalled past.

Seville was the bad-girl of Europe, in terms of seedy reputation and morals. The weather is sultry, and thus — the saying goes — are morals, to paraphrase Lord Byron. Operas like Don Giovanni take place here, too, with the loose morals of its title character, or Mozart's other blockbuster, Le Nozze di Figaro and Rossini's Il Barbière di Siviglia — showing the action is safely "over yonder" rather than in Europe's own locales. It appealed to the European taste for the exotic when displaying such human traits. Americans did the same thing with Cuba and New Orleans; we still do it with Las Vegas and Tijuana.

This production, directed by Richard Eyre with set and costume designs by Rob Howell, is stark and startling, and also rich and traditional. What was Mr. Eyre's theme, to set this production apart from others? "... to subvert the opera's familiarity so that sudiences will leave shocked and awed, yet also touched ..." The problem is, everyone knows the music of Carmen, and maybe even the story. It's so engrained in collective memory, and even Sesame Street once depicted an animated orange singing the Habañera, and basso Samuel Ramey singing a filk version of the Toreador Song called "L is the Letter That I Love the Most." So it can fall into a caricature, and moving the timing 100 years often does a disservice by making the production into a parody.

But Mr. Eyre has done what he set out to do — this Carmen is very fresh and very shocking, and also beautiful and a masterpiece. Young conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (a kid at 34) started the overture at what could only be described as breakneck-speed, and played with precision and emotion by the Met's orchestra. The traditional dances (usually a flamenco) were replaced by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon by two ballets placed in the entr'acts rather than in their traditional places in the action (to depict the unseen parts of Carmen's and Don Jose's love affair), and the "gypsy dance" in the tavern of Ilian Pastia was researched with a flamenco specialist. Rather than the twirling and the castanets and the guitars normally associated with this type of dance, there were a lot of rhythmic taps and textured clapping, which made the audience pay closer attention to a set-up scene. It made the gypsies appear culturally richer and much more organized than traditionally depicted.

And most of all, there were opera singers as stars! After all, the opera is theatre, but the singers should be part of the production, not an afterthought, or competing with the performers.

Elina Garanča took the role of Carmen, even though she doesn't have the traditional "smokey" voice of, say, the wonderful Olga Borodina (whom we had the pleasure to hear in the second half of the run). But, at least she's a mezzo-soprano — the role was originally slated for Angela Gheorghiu, a soprano (which actually upset many people who thought Carmen must be sung by a mezzo ... feh to them!), who withdrew upon the breakdown of her marriage to Robert Alagna. The tenor plays the struggling-to-be-upright Don Jose, who falls in love with Carmen — and either descends into madness or hubris, depending on the production. The joke is that Gheorghiu didn't want to be onstage with the guy who will stab her to death at the end. ;)

No, we didn't give away the ending — like we said, everyone knows some form of Carmen. East German figureskater Katerina Witt won her second Olympic gold medal skating to Bizet's music, dying on the ice after an extended spin (she beat American Debbie Thomas, who skated to the same tune). (It was after this — and Torvill and Dean's ice dance routine skated to Ravel's Bolero — that the skating judges ordered no more deaths on ice!) You should see it because the production is really amazing, and the singers and musicians and dancers are truly wonderful, even if you think you know the story and music.

There were some curious castings, but perhaps they are no more curious than originally featuring Ms. Gheorgiu as Carmen. Barbara Frittoli — a wonderful and experienced soprano — was Micaela, the orphan girl adopted by Don Jose's mother, and who expects to marry him. She played the ingenue very nicely, but in the HD projection where close-ups are the norm, kind of shattered the illusion a bit. Make no mistake, this role is normally considered a throw-away, but it's not easy to create a warm and believable young woman when most singers are hitting their prime in the 40s. In contrast, Mauricz Kweicien looked and acted the swaggering toreador Escamillo so beautifully, that it was a shame that his voice didn't cross over into the bass range very well. In one production, he was ill, and his understudy was Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Despite his New Zealand looks and coloring, he was nearly perfect as Escamillo — just as Elina Garanca, a blonde Latvian, was a perfect Carmen. Both wore wigs!

Other roles like Zuniga, Mercedes, Frasquita, Ilias Pastia were done perfectly, too. And the chorus sounded and moved really really well in crowd scenes — the Met's chorus is likely one of the best in the world. In fact, we overheard some workers in the bookstore admiring one man who had been in every production this season in the chorus. They felt he was much more successful than the stars — and he got to go home to his own bed every night, rather than living out of a suitcase like many stars do.

The ballets were beautiful and did convey the limpid story of the two lovers when they were actually happy. As Wheeler pointed out, the opera only shows the before and after of the love affair. Dancers were brought from London and borrowed from the ballet next door, giving these modern dances solidity and skill, and an elegance not normally associated with this opera.

The superstar of this production was the tall and willowy Elina Garanča, who had been known for her lithe, agile Rossini parts. She played this title role as part tease, part sexual predator, and part ice queen, without any of the clichéed hip-thrusting normally expected of Carmen. Rather than simply falling out of love with Don Jose and maybe being indifferent or ignoring him, she became overtly nasty to him in the second half — which made more sense, really. In the last act, she tells Mercedes and Frasquita that she will talk to Don Jose to end his infatuation — and she does it clinically and with ice in her veins. But really, how else do you deal with a besotted man who doesn't understand the meaning of, "No — means no"?

Many pundits criticized her portrayal because it simply wasn't traditional — her voice, her depiction, the fact that she can actually dance — but who's to say that Bizet himself would not have been delighted by her? He died a few months after Carmen was first shown at the Opera Comique at the age of 36 — a huge tragedy, as Carmen has become one of the most popular operas of all time.

By the way, the Opera Comique is the name of the hall — this isn't a comedy in any sense. Also, the original opera had spoken dialog (like Mozart's Zauberflot, in the genre of singspiel) rather than recititives (sung dialog) which propelled the story, making Carmen much like today's musicals. However, this version used the recititives, in case you were wondering. More for the traditionalist pundits to bitch about!

So, love it or hate, but see this Carmen, which was recorded on HD and should be available soon on either the MetPlayer subscription, or on DVD. This was so popular that we can't imagine that the Met would be able to resist offering it for sale. Mr. Eyre accomplished his mission — it's fresh and shocking, and a total delight.

Production images from www.nytimes.com, www.nymag.com, and www.metopera.org

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