16 January 2010: Bizet, Carmen

Metropolitan Opera Live in HD performance. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Production by Richard Eyre. Carmen: Elina Garanča; Don José: Roberto Alagna; Micaëla: Barbara Frittoli. Mariusz Kwiecien was billed as Escamillo, but he was indisposed, and at the last minute a brilliant Australian baritone stepped in. (My program has disappeared and at this point I am unable to recover his name.)

Richard Eyre’s glistening production of Carmen is a great success, and the singers were truly wonderful. As I review these Metropolitan Opera live broadcasts, I find myself writing superlative after superlative, perhaps not very helpfully. I think I am still enthralled by the whole enterprise. In this case, the combination of Rob Howell’s towering set, looking like the ruin of a vast Roman amphitheater seen from outside its precincts, and Richard Eyre’s utterly transparent direction was enough to make for a completely absorbing experience. The set was constructed on a turntable, offering different perspectives on this towering background. The tavern setting for Act Two was convincingly realistic, but I could not tell what its structural relationship was to the earlier set. Probably what happened was that, the curtain being down, the turntable moved. In Act Three, the smugglers’ mountain hideaway, presumably sharing space on the turntable with the other two sets, had a high, towering backing equally tall and imposing. It remains amazing, the extent to which the Met goes to make a full and complete operatic experience. A couple of weeks ago, at an earlier broadcast, we were taken backstage to the scene shop, where we saw under construction a representation of a bull, which was to be used in the up-coming broadcast of Carmen. (See below.)

In Act Four we are back in front of the amphitheater for the final, tragic conclusion. Don José’s fateful, compulsive love for Carmen is all the more evident when she enters on the arm of Escamillo, the bullfighter who looks forward to his triumph in the ring. The bullfighter and crowd of admirers go off, into the amphitheater, and the climax of the opera begins. Eyre stages the moment in which Don José kills Carmen in a kind of stop-action sequence; he is poised over Carmen, the knife raised high and then lowered, but not actually plunged into Carmen’s body. The turntable moves, without obscuring that scene, and we see another, parallel moment staged: Escamillo stands poised over the body of a slain bull. Evidently, we are to understand that these two violent encounters are meaningfully related. Each is the result of the irresistible force of deep, inexplicable passions that lie beneath the surface of civilized life, as clear, on close inspection, as they are inevitable. Bizet’s music has exactly this same clarity and seeming inevitability. Add to this the great musicality of the score, the composer’s wonderful ability to write for bravura singers, his true operatic instincts for extending the emotion of the moment for minute after minute, and his great insights into the waywardness and perversity of persons both male and female, and you have the recipe for the extraordinary success and long life of this opera.

We saw this broadcast in the multiplex in Hadley, Massachusetts; two auditoriums were devoted to showing it. In our auditorium, a patron asked one of the staff why they don’t have even more auditoriums devoted to the Met Opera HD broadcasts, since they both were evidently sold out, or nearly so. He explained that these two auditoriums were the only two in the multiplex that could receive and project the HD signal. That answer was, among other things, a tribute to the phenomenal success of what the Metropolitan Opera is doing to save its life and at the same time to bring opera, which some appear to view as a dying art, along with symphony orchestra concerts, to a nation of enthusiasts. I’m sorry to say that, in my completely unscientific estimate, it is an aging nation: the average age of the viewers was at least fifty-five, or perhaps older. A sign of the times, I suppose, along with the amazing technology that enables these broadcasts to reach such a wide yet specialized public in the first place.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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