‘Carmen’ at the Met

The Forces of Nature and Sexy Singers

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume opened the New York Met’s production of Carmen, urging the orchestra on in an insistent and intensely performed overture, the brass section splashy and percussive against ominous strings. Throughout the evening, the orchestra’s interpretation of Bizet’s rhythmically shifting and melodically alluring music sustained this Carmen, teasing out its sensuality and rawness, its bravura and subtler poignancy.

In front of the stage hung a curtain of large, loosely woven, brightly colored ropes on which were projected the brooding features of gypsy women. When the curtain finally rises what faces the audience is a set dominated by pale blue sky, the white stucco and brown-tile roofed houses of Seville seated fuzzily in the distance below the horizon. The stage is flooded with light, evoking the hot sun of the Spanish countryside.

This understanding of natural forces drives the atmospheric 1996 Franco Zeffirelli production currently playing at one of the world’s most esteemed opera houses. The second and third acts set in Lillas Pastia’s tavern and the smugglers’ mountain hideout, with its light snowfall drifting over craggy rocks through which footpaths coil, provide dark and increasingly chilly settings as the story plummets through Carmen and Don José’s decaying love affair.

Heat flows through the first act when Carmen appears, smoking, joking and breaking hearts. With a dark and variegated mezzo sound in the lower register and an ample, beautiful tone throughout her range, Olga Borodina suffuses the role with sensual abundance. Her theatrical portrayal was aggressive and commanding: no lightweight, this Carmen.

Sadly her “Habanera” was a bit unraveled by fussy directing that required her to get up and down from the floor and fiddle awkwardly with a deck of cards. Totally unnecessary for a song in which all she needed to do was project a rapacious and captivating sexuality through her voice, something she does wondrously well, as she pulls her hungry admirers toward her to unleash sultry notes face to face, eye to eye.

Tenor Marcelo Álvarez sang the role of Don José, Carmen’s doomed lover and killer. Álvarez has a fine tone and a forceful stage presence. His character’s portrayal moved from responsible and reserved when he first appears with Micaëla to smitten and confused when bartering with Carmen over her freedom. He exceeded himself into the second act “Flower Song”—in which he pleads for Carmen’s love by telling her of his attachment to a rose that she threw at him—reaching a level of passionate distraction that was both exotic and gripping, as he draped his anguished song around her unyielding body.

Borodina colored Carmen’s fatalism with desperation and craving, and Álvarez’s Don Juan conveyed a compulsive and convincing unraveling of the self at the core of which lay a compulsive nihilism.

Though none of the rest of the cast has the opportunity to reveal character to the extent that Carmen and Don José do, each was able to forge some complexity within their parts. Maija Kovalevska sang the soprano role Micaëla with a sweet tone and a slightly disengaged quality that became bolder as the opera evolved. Baritone Lucio Gallo sang the toreador Escamillo, portraying him with just enough swagger and rangy masculinity. Bass-baritone Jeffrey Wells sang Don José’s captain Zuñiga, distinguishing himself not only vocally but also as an admirable horseman.

Rachelle Durkin and Edyta Kulczak sang avidly as Carmen’s girl buddies; John Hancock and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt were paired as the Mutt and Jeff smugglers. And all four, with Borodina, sang precisely the exquisite quintet “Nous avons en tête une affaire.”

Even the kid’s chorus sang with panache, brightly and energetically.

And as for Zeffirelli’s penchant for parades of live dogs, burros and horses—I loved it. Those picadors were terrific

—Jaime Robles

Originally published in the Piedmont Post