by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The movie last night was the recent Metropolitan Opera telecast of Bizet’s Carmen, from one of their live HD transmissions to movie theatres on January 16, 2010, which if not a fabulously great Carmen was certainly quite a good one despite a few strikes against it, notably the use of the grand opera version (with recitatives composed by Ernest Guiraud after Bizet’s death) rather than the original version with spoken dialogue premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1875. The opera was staged in a new production by Richard Eyre that updated the setting to the 1930’s and supposedly staged the original plot against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War — which quite frankly was neither a new idea nor especially well executed; in the early 1980’s Frank Corsaro did a Carmen production at the New York City Opera that not only set Carmen during the Spanish Civil War but actually worked the war into the plot (in Corsaro’s version Carmen was a resistance leader for the Republic — instead of smuggling goods for money at the start of Act III, her crew was smuggling guns into the country for the Loyalist army — while the army Don José was enlisted in was Franco’s), and though some of the plot changes to fit the concept seemed forced, the production benefited from a clear directorial point of view and from a quite good Carmen in Victoria Vergara.
The Met’s production differed from the 19th Century norm mainly in playing the first and fourth acts on a revolving stage against a spiral-shaped brick wall that was visibly crumbling (were we supposed to believe it was a building that had been hit in an air raid?) and in having the stage lighting way too dark to suggest the sunlit Seville town square Bizet and his librettists specified for act I (in which the cigarette girls emerged from an underground cistern the Met probably had left over from its production of Salomé — were we to think the cigarette factory’s owners had located it underground so it would survive a future air raid?) and the bullring exterior for act IV. Lillas Pastia’s tavern in act II was a geometric creation evoked mostly by a series of black beams erected against a blue backdrop, and only Act III — which is supposed to take place in the dark (on the moon-less night the smugglers have naturally chosen for their work) — really “looked” right.
As with most Met productions where they try to get fancy with the staging, what saved this one was the singing: I’d heard Elina Garança (pronounced “Garancha” by announcer Renée Fleming) before on European broadcast recordings but I’d been unprepared for how good a Carmen she would be. Though her voice is solidly mezzo in this potentially in-between role that some great sopranos (notably Geraldine Farrar, Maria Callas and Leontyne Price) have played, Garança both sang the music and projected the character with power and authority. The other principals were all excellent, with Roberto Alagna managing to turn his own recent career troubles to good use in his account of the tortured Don José; Barbara Frittoli making as much as one could out of the bland “good girl” role of Micaëla (even more than usual she seemed less like José’s pre-Carmen girlfriend and more like a surrogate for his mother!); and Teddy Tahu Rhodes stepping in for an “indisposed” (opera-speak that can mean anything from genuinely ill to having a diva/divo hissy-fit and deciding s/he doesn’t want to sing that night) Mariusz Kwiecien in the difficult role of Escamillo, who gets the most famous aria in the opera (the “Toreador Song” — the one of which Bizet told a friend, “Well, they’ve asked for shit and they’ve got it” — I’ve read the word variously rendered as “excrement” and “ordure” but I’m sure what Bizet really said was “merde” — and actually marked the music to be played “avec fatuité”) but whose role, like Carmen, is composed in between the usual vocal ranges, not quite baritone and not quite bass.
Conductor Yannick Nézet-Seguín occasionally took some of the music too slow for the desired effect — the performance got sluggish sometimes, though I think that was less Nézet-Seguín’s fault as conductor than the decision to perform the work with the Guiraud recitatives (which sound as authentic as one would expect — Bizet had signed a contract for a Vienna production the day before he died, almost certainly knew that the Vienna Court Opera would want recitatives instead of dialogue, and would likely have composed them himself if he’d lived — but also tend to slow down the story) — and the playing of the Met orchestra (and the recording) was transparent enough that one could hear the amazing details of scoring Bizet worked into Carmen. We’re with Bizet where we would be with Verdi if he had died just after composing Rigoletto — a few operas of promise and then one masterpiece — and it’s easy enough to hear why once Nietzsche had his final falling-out with Wagner, he picked Carmen as the opera he would hail to the skies as the greatest ever written, the anti-Wagner opera that would pound the Wagner cult into dust. It’s a realistic story about realistic people driven by realistic emotions, and though it was French and therefore isn’t generally considered an ancestor of the Italian verismo movement, it’s hard to imagine that Cavalleria Rusticana or Pagliacci would have come to exist without the example of Carmen to show their composers how to put real life — including the sorts of crimes real people actually commit rather than the ridiculous ones that drive the plots of things like Trovatore — on the opera stage.
Carmen also seems to me in a way to be the first film noir — even though movies didn’t exist when it was composed — partly due to the basis of the story in a “realistic” short novel by Prosper Merimée which used the noir device of having the whole story narrated as a flashback by Don José (Merimée, an anthropologist who had done research in Spain, worked himself into the story as a character and had himself interview José in his prison cell on the eve of his execution for Carmen’s murder, and I wish an opera director would have the guts to stage Carmen that way sometime, using Merimée’s words over the orchestral introduction and supplying bits of narration for José from the book), and partly because it anticipates so many of the trappings of both film noir and the pulp crime fiction it derived from: the innocent and rather clueless young hero, the femme fatale who entraps him, his degradation from a certain degree of social position into a life of crime (though in Merimée’s book José is presented as a Basque nobleman who’s already disgraced the family and been forced to join the army as his punishment, so he’s already on the road downhill even before the part of the story presented in the opera begins!) and the dire ending as well as the overall aura of fate that drives both the characters and the plot. (The prediction Carmen makes in the card scene — that first she will die and then José will — seems a bit incomprehensible without the knowledge from Merimée’s novel that José will be executed for Carmen’s murder — and, in a bizarre twist Merimée probably picked up on from his anthropological studies, while facing death José is perversely proud that he’s been told that, because of his noble origins, he will be garroted instead of hanged.)