Opera Review: CARMEN (Metropolitan Opera House)

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by Gregory Fletcher on May 5, 2024

in Music,Theater-New York


Carmen is one of the most popular operas worldwide and has been part of the Metropolitan Opera’s repertoire since its first season in 1884. 102 years later, I first experienced the Met Opera as a grad student when I attended the opening night of their 1986 Carmen, directed by Sir Peter Hall and starring his wife, Maria Ewing. Since then, the Met has remounted the opera in 1996 (directed by Franco Zeffirelli), 2009 (directed by Richard Eyre), and now Carrie Cracknell’s gritty revival, which opened last New Year’s Eve with Aigul Akhmetshina in the lead. American audiences may know English director Cracknell from the 2019 Broadway production of Seawall/A Life starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the Netflix film Persuasion starring Dakota Johnson. With this new production, Cracknell’s work soars with originality and creative interpretation. On April 25, a new cast came on for performances through May 25.

Clémentine Margaine as Carmen (Nina Wurtzel)
Michael Fabiano as Don José and Clémentine Margaine as Carmen (Nina Wurtzel)

My first experience with the four-act Carmen was performed with two intermissions and ran four and a half hours—Act IV began around midnight! Ms. Cracknell’s production is much more focused and streamlined, only running three and a half hours with one intermission between Acts II and III.  Hall’s 1986 set and costume designer John Bury gave a realistic, period production. Ms. Cracknell and her designers Michael Levine, sets, and Guy Hoare, lights, generously reinterpret the opera, eschewing its original locations for modern settings impossible to anticipate.

Clémentine Margaine as Carmen (Nina Wurtzel)

Act I’s cigarette factory and town square in 19th-century Andalusia has become an arms factory in America’s industrial heartland. Three loading docks span the stage, one which has the cab of a commercial semi parked in it. In front, spanning the entire width of the stage, is a 15-foot chain link fence with barbed wire on top. The original military soldiers are now armed security guards, both in front of the fence and on a towering bridge attached to the building.

A scene from Bizet's Carmen (Ken Howard)

Act II no longer takes place in Lillas Pastia’s tavern but rather in the cargo hold of the truck that provided Carmen’s escape at the end of Act I. Additional smuggler pick-up trucks and Escamillo’s red sports car join the getaway, later stopping along the highway and at a gas station.

Kyle Ketelsen as Escamillo (Ken Howard)

Instead of Act III’s mountaintop passage, the location is the crash site where the truck has tumbled onto its side. And finally, Act IV’s infamous Seville bullring has become steep bleachers for viewing a honky-tonk rodeo. With a slow revolving stage used in the last two acts, and the abstract light bars hanging around each setting, I found the design to be ingenious and full of surprises. A nearby audience member questioned why the setting had to be “so ugly.” Granted, patrons at the Met may not be used to seeing arias sung behind a chain link fence, or in front of truck’s turned-up undercarriage, or standing atop of a gas station fuel pump, but it forces viewers to witness the opera with fresh eyes as if experiencing it for the first time.

Clémentine Margaine as Carmen and Michael Fabiano as Don José (Nina Wurtzel)

Powerful in both voice and acting, Clémentine Margaine is a zaftig Carmen who is one tough broad with nary a false moment — a survivor to say the least, but not one that turns heads in the conventional sense of sensuality and charisma. In Act III when she draws the cards that anticipates her death, her aria “En vain pour éviter” (“In vain in order to avoid harsh remarks”) was as haunting as any I’ve ever heard. Throughout her performance, I admired her force and talent, especially in comparison with Maria Ewing’s affected acting in the Carmen of 1986, played like a brooding spoiled child.

Clémentine Margaine (back left) as Carmen and Ryan Speedo Green as Escamillo (Nina Wurtzel)
Ailyn Pérez as Micaëla (Nina Wurtzel)

The other new cast members are strong and memorable. Singing Escamillo, is there any male opera singer in the world as sexy and commanding as Ryan Speedo Green, who just finished the run of Fire Shut up in My Bones? (The original Escamillo, Kyle Ketelsen, plays May 25.) Ailyn Pérez’s Micaéla elicited “bravas” every time she sang, especially after Act III’s “Nocturne” (“Je dis, que rien ne m’epouvante”). Carmen’s close companions Frasquita (Sydney Mancasola), Mercédès (Briana Hunter), Le Dancaïre (Michael Adams), and Le Remendado (Frederick Ballentine) were all vocally strong and true to their characters. Equally spot-on were Benjamin Taylor as Moralés and Wei Wu as Zuniga.

Sydney Mancasola as Fraquita, Aigul Akhmetshina as Carmen, and Briana Hunter as Mercédès
(Ken Howard)
The Chorus (Ken Howard)

Most surprisingly is how much the chorus — led by Donald Palumbo, who is being replaced after ten years by Tilman Michael next season — fits into Ms. Cracknell’s vision of this alternative world for Carmen. I’ll never forget 1986 production, which had the female chorus from the cigarette factory resembling chimney sweeps, even though none would’ve been able to climb or fit into a smokestack. Now, we have women which the male chorus sings about and admires: This chorus looks just like the working-class women who’d be hired for such hard labor. Greatly assisted by costume designer Tom Scutt, all the clothing looked real, worn, and as fashionable as their meager paychecks allowed.

Clémentine Margaine as Carmen and Michael Fabiano as Don José (Nina Wurtzel)

As with the 1986 production, the ultimate pile-driving performance came from the role of Don José. 38 years ago, it was sung by an attractive Luis Lima, but at tonight’s performance, it was Michael Fabiano who soared. First off, his voice filled the vast Met house like no other. He connected to his words with such passion that when he sang about the love for his mother in Act I, I was moved to tears. With each following aria, his mental state slid into a chaotic illness that, despite knowing the ending, I gasped when he picked up the baseball bat as a weapon. His performance is one never to be forgotten.

The Chorus (Ken Howard)

I left the opera house with such sadness, not only for the tragic characters onstage, but also for composer Georges Bizet who died in 1875 at 36 years old from a heart attack, only three months after the underappreciated opening of Carmen. Within eight years, the opera was a worldwide success, none of which he got to witness. After hearing his magnificent score by the exquisite Met Opera orchestra, conducted with immediacy by Diego Matheuz in his Met Opera debut, I found myself mourning the loss of all the work that may have followed his great success. Be one of the lucky ones and catch the final performances of Carmen on May 9, 13, 18, 22, and 25th.

The Chorus (Ken Howard)

photos by Nina Wurtzel (New Cast) and Ken Howard (Original Cast) / Met Opera

Metropolitan Opera House, 30 Lincoln Center Plaza
ends on May 25, 2024
for tickets, call 212.362.2000 or visit The Met

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