Remember Carmen, the opera about the Gypsy girl in Seville who hooks up with a soldier, then ditches him for a bullfighter? Forget it.

My opening here is an homage to my late friend Martin Bernheimer, the great critic. He opened a number of reviews that way—when the production did not match the opera. I will get to the Met’s new production of Carmen in due course.

The company celebrated New Year’s Eve with this opera. Bizet’s masterpiece is good for any night, including December 31. In the Met’s pit was Daniele Rustioni, the fine young Italian conductor. (“Youngish”? The maestro is forty.) The overture, and the opera, began sloppily. A bit later, a trumpet flubbed offstage. As if in sympathy, a trumpet in the pit then flubbed as well.

But these flubs were as nothing compared with the overall music-making in Acts I and II. It was tentative, cautious, uncertain—gray. Limp. Without color or flair. Without rhapsody or romance. Without Carmen, in short.

At one point in the story, Don José tells Carmen that he is “like a man drunk”—intoxicated with love, mad with love. I almost laughed. There was no passion or excitement in the house at all. 

Next to me was a young man who had never seen or heard Carmen. Between Acts I and II, I assured him, “Carmen is not a dull opera. Trust me. There’s a reason it’s the world’s best-loved opera.”

Things got much, much better in Acts III and IV. Carmen showed up at last (musically). Rustioni and his forces did far greater justice to the opera.

The prelude to Act III was lovely. And the maestro did something I had never seen before. As the audience was applauding the prelude, he tried to acknowledge the flutist. This is easier to do in a concert, with an orchestra on a stage. Acknowledging players in a pit is tricky.

How about the cast? It was variable (as was its French). The title role was taken by a young mezzo-soprano from Russia: Aigul Akhmetshina. (More specifically, she is from Bashkortostan, a.k.a. Bashkiria.) Akhmetshina has made a name in this role. And she handles it well.

Carmen should be sultry and nimble, both. Akhmetshina was, pretty much. In the early going—the Habanera, for example—she had some trouble with intonation. But this straightened out. In fact, she kept her intonation when those about her were losing theirs.

I would like to see this young woman’s Carmen in a more . . . Carmen-like production. She is impressive, Aigul Akhmetshina.

Her Don José was to have been Piotr Beczała, the Polish star. But he was indisposed, replaced by Rafael Dávila, a tenor from Puerto Rico. He was serviceable, getting through the part manfully.

Angel Blue, the American soprano, was Micaëla. She sang beautifully, in a lyrical stream. At times, I would have liked more volume from her—as I would have from Kyle Ketelsen, the American bass-baritone, who was Escamillo. But he was, as usual, tidy. He is a neat and correct and polished singer. And he cuts an Escamillo-like figure.

(Perhaps I should mention, or remind readers, that the Met is a big ol’ house. Better that singers sing as their natural selves than that they push. Blue, Ketelsen, and the others were plenty audible. But I sometimes find myself greedy.)

The new production is in the hands of Carrie Cracknell, an English director. According to Met publicity,

Cracknell reinvigorates the classic story of deadly passion with a staging that moves the action to [the] modern day and explores themes that could not be more relevant today: gendered violence, abusive labor structures, and the desire to break through societal boundaries.

Frankly, I’m not sure the story of Carmen needs reinvigorating. Frankly, I’m sure it doesn’t. There is hardly a human being who can’t relate to Carmen, just as it is.

In this new production, Act I takes place in and outside a prison, possibly. There are armed guards and barbed wire. Then Carmen is a road movie, sort of. The characters are in trucks. Lillas Pastia’s inn does not exist. There is a gas station. It may be the case that the director is commenting on human trafficking.

The stage is usually dark: black or gray. And Carmen is such a colorful opera. It’s Spanish. There are Spanish melodies in the score, complete with castanets. And the stage looks nothing like that. There is an utter mismatch between eye and ear.

In Act IV, some color appears. Escamillo is not a bullfighter but a rodeo performer. One of the characters, in the general scene, looks like the QAnon Shaman.

Toward the top of this review, I mentioned a young man sitting beside me. He has now heard Carmen. But has he seen it? Really and truly?

I also mentioned the graciousness—the generous spirit—of Daniele Rustioni, who did his best to acknowledge the flute player. When the maestro took his final bows, he insisted on doing so alongside Donald Palumbo, the chorus master. What a gent, Signor Rustioni.

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