I learned something last night: Carmen is a popular opera. Yes, I knew this at some level, but showing up more than four hours before the release of rush tickets to find oneself behind 120 other people does rather drive it home. (Not to mention mercifully-abortive manifestations of rhythmic applause, and even Toreador-humming, during the performance. Oh dear, I'm turning into an elitist. Sorry.) I would be remiss in opening my account of this much-anticipated event without an "Euch werde Lohn" for the charming Zerbinetta due to whose kind offices and timelier arrival I was able to be present at all! Ich kann sie nicht vergelten! (For a probably more-sophisticated review, head to her blog.)
Bizet's superb music, of course, is always a treat, and the orchestra under Alain Altinoglu played with increasing verve from Act II onwards. While I had some quibbles with the Richard Eyre production (images, with the season's first cast, may be found here) I will say that having a fairly clear concept working throughout is no small thing. The sets were massive, dwarfing, and seeming to at times cramp, the singers; the world of this Carmen was dirty, sensual, and brutal. In Act I, the monstrously ineffective garrison, at the front of the stage, was separated from the population they were nominally policing by a chicken-wire fence, and when they did emerge, could not even execute the changing of the guard without being disrupted by the chorus of urchins. What did they do with their time? Grope nice girls like Micaela and ogle the factory workers, obviously. Lillas Pastia had an appropriately dingy interior, curiously open to the sky, with a dais for all that gypsy dancing. More monumental stone indicated Smuggling in the Mountains, and Act IV, of course, took place in the shadow of the enormous arena. The atmospheric colored lighting worked well, I thought, and the balletic intervals before Acts I and III were interesting, if not breathtaking. Altogether, while not entirely won over by the production (why, for instance, is the cigarette factory under the stage? and must we use turntables so much? must we?) I was impressed with Eyre's efforts to support and comment on the drama. Doom, I must say, was impending from the first opening of the scarlet-slashed curtain, the production itself as fatalistic as Carmen: out of such an environment, it seems to suggest, there is no other possible outcome.
Kate Aldrich presented a Carmen for whom the exercise of attraction itself was an aphrodisiac, and whose pleasure in herself as a sexual being was infinitely more important than her interest in the target of the moment. A somewhat lackluster Habañera had me worried, but she quickly settled in to the business of seduction. And dramatically, the Habañera was interestingly done: instead of an open approach to Don José, her looks were liberally cast, her caresses were for Zuniga... but with an eye to José's reactions (indifference, fascination, studied indifference.) This was my first time hearing Aldrich live, and I liked her timbre and was impressed with her expressive phrasing. I found myself wishing that her voice filled the house more, but it's a big house to fill. (The bite and energy with which she gave Act IV made me wonder whether she had been saving her voice.) And as someone who has more questions than opinions about Carmen's character, I enjoyed and appreciated Aldrich's portrayal: never cruel for the sake of cruelty, but simply insistent on conducting her love affairs on her own terms (and be damned to the consequences.) She was also an exuberantly athletic Carmen, which tied in nicely to the sense of her as a woman who consciously draws a lot of her identity from her physicality, whether dancing chez Lillas Pastia or in the mountains before heading out to vamp the customs officers. Not to mention, of course, the sinuous Séguidille or the languid-sultry movements in which she seemed to luxuriate for their own sake, as well as effectively using them for purposes of seduction.
The rest of the cast acquitted themselves well, I thought: Elizabeth Caballero and Eve Gigliotti gave strong characterizations of Frasquita and Mercédès. Keith Miller's Zuniga was vocally powerful and most menacing (even trying to rape Carmen after his reentry in Act II, making his discovery of Don José a consequence of the latter's impetuous, instinctive blundering back into the scene to haul his superior officer off her.) Maija Kovalevska gave a Micaela with lovely phrasing who, for all her naiveté--and perhaps even because of it--was credibly and creditably courageous. Ideally, I'd like some ringing arrogance from Escamillo, but Mariusz Kwiecien gave a solid performance, coming across as a very cool customer in his flash suit; I thought his timbre better suited to sneering at Don José than the shameless showmanship of his entrance. (Also, the singers should get credit for diction: it's not a libretto I know that well, and I understood all the French. Bravi!)
Now, I have a Confession: in all my admittedly limited exploration of Carmen, José has fascinated me almost more than the titular heroine. Carmen is, to be sure, an enigma, a multi-faceted character for whom interpretative choices abound. But we get to see José change, dramatically, before our eyes (or have his true nature dramatically revealed, or some combination of these two.) On the "fundamentally innocent country boy who gets totally out of his depth when faced with Carmen's wiles" to "proud-as-the-devil, dangerously single-minded, potentially violent young soldier" spectrum of Josés, Jonas Kaufmann's was pretty far towards the latter end, and it was compelling, and frightening, as well as so gorgeous that I closed my eyes more than once, just to take in that voice alone. He knew and understood the source of Carmen's power, and feared it accordingly, but was nonetheless powerfully attracted. The intense physicality of Eyre's production had them making love by the end of the Séguidille (Tra-la-la-la-la!) and Carmen frequently throwing José literally off-balance, and, in rage or pique at his Act II pleas of duty, casting him out of his chair and on to the floor, where he successfully sang "Carmen, hélas, mon Dieu, hélas!" with his head hanging off the tavern dais and her straddling him. Mon Dieu! Also, Kaufmann played with dynamics as though it were easy, from private meditation on sorceresses to a trumpet-like Dragons d'Alcalas. This finesse was most noticeable in "La fleur," where Carmen realizes fully that she has picked the wrong mark for her latest fling. He kneels beside her chair, hardly looking up to her, but merely making his statement, taking the B flat from piano to mezzoforte and back, to bravos galore. By Act III, José is a broken man, and Carmen still the creature she is, bored and annoyed with her lover's dark moods. It is in this mood of frustration that she takes up the cards... and while he sits apparently oblivious, she seems to find in their prophecy a strange release. Aldrich was strongest and gloriously dark at the low end of her range, capturing the strange exaltation as she reads the inexorable verdict: La mort! When brave Micaela brings her message to Don José, Carmen laughs outright at his compunction, and hurries him off with no motive than to be rid of the nuisance... but you can see the thought enter her head as Escamillo's boast rings out off-stage.
Act IV was unsurprisingly full of doom. "Les voici" was full of panache, and glitter, with Carmen basking in her share of the cult of celebrity, and then bidding Mercedes and Frasquita farewell with surprising gravity before José entered looking like the incarnation of doom in a dark coat. Holding a cross (what sort of crisis has this man been through in the wake of his mother's death?) he sang with a surprisingly controlled intensity. (Update: audio of Saturday's final duet available in two parts, here and here.) I'll say it again: Kaufmann is an actor. I don't know what the surtitles were like, but dear God, Met audience, there was nothing funny about that first "Tu ne m'aimes donc plus?" delivered from the floor. Then the cross was cast aside ("Tout, tu m'entends?") She was inflexible, resigned, and magnificently disdainful. He stabbed her twice against a pillar, covering her with his body (we've seen them like this before.) As José cradles her, sobbing "Ma Carmen adorée!" the turntable turns to reveal an officer with a pistol leveled at the back of his skull... and the slaughtered bull in the ring, a tableau drenched in blood-red light, which seemed not so much out of place as superfluous: we know already that this is a dysfunctional society which kills bulls, and Carmens, and Don Josés, indiscriminately.