For his third attempt at opera and his debut at the Met, British director Richard Eyre has taken one of the best-known works in the repertoire and invested it with vigor and freshness. Not all of his choices are ideal, but with the help of the memorable costume and set designs of Rob Howell and the stunning Elina Garanca in the title role, he has created a “Carmen” that is gripping from start to finish.
Eyre takes the original 1830s setting and moves it up a hundred years to the Spanish Civil War. This in itself is neither a new concept nor a revelatory one; Frank Corsaro took the same route with the opera in the early 1980s. What makes Eyre’s version effective is the immediacy of his staging and the ever-present sense of violence and menace that suffuses it. Slashes of red turn up in the scenery, the stage is often drenched in blood-red lighting, and characters seek to dominate each other with slaps, kicks, head-butts and brandished weapons. This is a tough, nasty “Carmen,” rife with seediness and brutality.
“Carmen” is a long opera — four acts — and Eyre wisely keeps things moving by granting a single intermission between acts two and three.
With her statuesque form and charismatic appeal, Elina Garanca rivets attention every second she is onstage. Her lush lyric mezzo is a near-perfect fit for the Spanish gypsy, although she lacks real amplitude on the low end of her range. She is ultimately more compelling than her Don Jose (Roberto Alagna), who has trouble summoning up the inherent danger in his character; at times, he seems more like a lost little boy than someone who has already killed once and is about to kill again. Still, this quality serves him well in act two’s “Flower Song,” in which he makes an attempt to croon the final lines, as Bizet intended, rather than crudely belt them as tenors usually do.
In the goody-two-shoes role of Don Jose’s childhood sweetheart, Micaela, Barbara Frittoli offers a wiser, tougher characterization than we usually find, and the change is welcome. Her rich, fluid voice might have been perfect for the part a couple of years ago, but since then, she has unfortunately developed a pronounced wobble throughout most of her range. Mariusz Kwiecien’s virile stage presence and oaken baritone would seem to be ideally suited to the role of the cocky toreador Escamillo, but in this house and this production, he seems a size too small both vocally and physically.
As Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercedes, Elizabeth Caballero and Sandra Piques Eddy make the most of their minor parts. Eddy, with her good looks and firm mezzo, even seems ready to take on the role of Carmen herself.
Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin gives a spirited reading of the score, including what may be the fastest version of the prelude ever performed. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon succeeds with the Spanish dances, but some Supremes-type movements for Carmen, Frasquita and Mercedes (during their brief act-three trio) are embarrassing. Wheeldon also provides two unnecessary balletic pas de deux during two of the act preludes, an idea Eyre should have scrapped.