polarizing Carmen on Tuesday evening. I'm glad I did: she has a vocally superb Carmen ("Duh!" you may exclaim, Gentle Readers; and you are right to do so, given the reactions of the international press. Still, I was genuinely surprised by just how good she was.) Furthermore, I feel as though she also has a fascinating Carmen just waiting to break free. There are more details on Richard Eyre's production in my review of the performance I saw last season, with a different cast, than I'll include here. Although it's fair to say that Eyre could have exploited and explored the 1930s setting of his Carmen more, the production stood up very well for me in this second viewing. The action flows well, there's a clear point of view on Carmen's world, it can comfortably house a variety of different interpretative choices, and caricature is avoided.
As for last night's performance, Edward Gardner's conducting was energetic and precise, drawing nuanced response from the orchestra. It could perhaps have been more ominous, and could certainly have been more daring, but pacing and balance were good. Eve Gigliotti reprised her lively Mercedes from last season, while Joyce El-Khoury was Frasquita, both nicely characterized and sung. Michael Todd Simpson was a Morales with a credibly unpleasant swagger and an incongruously beautiful voice. As last season, Keith Miller's Zuniga was a vocal and dramatic stand-out; I found even more nuance this time around. (I ran into Mr. Miller while wandering towards the stage door, and was told, to my delight, that the opportunity to create such a multi-faceted character, who helps drive the drama, was relished. He was more than nice. I blushed and stammered, and then went home.) I wondered whether John Relyea, as Escamillo, might have been a bit tired; but he still sang with aloof panache. Nicole Cabell, as Micaela, was sweet and demure, but no push-over. Her muddy French, however, was an obstacle for me. She has a nice sound, but I didn't get much of a sense of the character's Act III desperation. She did have nice chemistry with Brandon Jovanovich's Don José.
In reviewing the two principals, I'll try to avoid unfair comparisons with the last cast I saw, but can't resist commenting on the degree to which the Personenregie had been altered to fit different relationships between the characters. Firstly, let me say that Brandon Jovanovich has a very pleasant tenor. His José, however, was so harmless as to border on bland. I could envision him as Pinkerton, or perhaps Rodolfo, but I really didn't warm to him here. The idea of him as sexually threatening was laughable (all right, maybe not Pinkerton, then.) Although the voice is warm, it was not filled with urgency; and his José was not only fatally weak-willed, but also boyish in his jealousy and ardor. He always seemed rather surprised (as well as clumsily delighted) by Carmen's sexual allure and availability, and affronted without understanding when her attention wandered elsewhere. Really, this José needed to go home, grow up, marry Micaela, and let her manage him while he managed a business or farm and helped keep the 4-6 children under control. His stabbing of Carmen was made as plausible as it could be by the staging; it's the willful, frustrated gesture of an arrogant boy, who is then surprised and dismayed by the consequences of his action. (This Don José may not be the brightest bulb in the box, either.) Maybe this frustrating performance is largely the result of a temperamental mismatch; the Act I duet with Micaela, for instance, was much more musically satisfying--engaged and engaging--than the lackluster "La Fleur."
Garanca's Carmen, despite the vocal beauty, puzzled and frustrated me in many ways, but also grew on me throughout the course of the evening. Musically, she commands the role: she came across as utterly assured. And so this was how I started off reading Garanca's take on Carmen's character: an aloof and confidant woman who doesn't have to do a femme fatale act to get men; she just is, and they come to her. As the evening progressed, I began to think that I was wrong. The balance of power is the other way for this Carmen--she is living precariously on the margins of a society that knows exactly where it wants her--and she knows it. She doesn't wait for José, preoccupied with her shapely ankle, to untie the rope that tethers her cuffed hands to the wire wall of the barracks; she tears it loose with her teeth, desperate to be uncaged. Through gestures so sudden as to seem incongruous, an insecure Carmen was hinted at, even a Carmen with a history of physical and emotional abuse behind her. For instance, when Don José roughly grabs her by the wrists in Act II, her look is so full of disappointment, and yet so devoid of surprise, that it's impossible to escape the notion that she expects no better from any man. When he raises his hand as if to strike her in Act III, she goes fetal, cringing. Her pleasure and fear, responding to him, both seemed out of proportion to his fumbling, lustful actions, driven by hopes and apprehensions learned in difficult places. Her confession of love for Escamillo, in this context, seemed more to be just that, a genuine avowal, than a knowing provocation of José. If the closest approximation Carmen can find to a healthy relationship is with Escamillo, how tragic is that? And I heard none of this in her voice. This strange inconsistency was provoking in the extreme. I can but hope that as Garanca continues to perform the role, in subsequent years, in subsequent productions, that somewhere she'll find the spark that will ignite this Carmen, or the thread that will tie it together. If and when that happens, I think she could have me on the edge of my seat.