When people want to put down, or merely describe, an opera house that offers standard fare, they call it an “ABC house.” Those letters stand for Aida, Bohème, and Carmen. So far this season—a season still very young—the Met has done all three of those operas. Nothing wrong with that. Moreover, the company has also gone off the beaten track—e.g., Marnie!

Carmen was in the house last night. It began deplorably. The initial attack was sloppy. And the rest of the overture was even worse. It was a breakneck, charmless mess. The music had no character, no thrill. It was robotic and rushed, practically computerized.

Why bother to play it, if you’re going to do it like this? Do you even like the overture?

Act I was a similar mess, if not necessarily computerized. Playing in the pit was ragged. Coordination with the stage was off. The music was short on its fluidity, refinement, and flair. The whole act was dogged by uncertainty.

Let me make a point about the Smokers’ Chorus. It was disappointingly routine, but that’s not my point, actually. The point I wish to make relates to the production: there is no smoke to be seen anywhere—and can’t the technological geniuses of today think up some smoke (or smoke-like thing) that does no harm? The chorus would be aided by it.

The good news is that the opera eventually settled down, and settled in, under the baton of Omer Meir Wellber, an Israeli in the pit. Act II’s quintet—which is tricky to keep together—was together. The prelude (if I may call it that) to Act IV was really good. It had musicality, verve, and reasonableness.

A separate bow should be reserved for the principal oboe, Nathan Hughes. (Beautiful sound, idiomatic phrasing.)

To my taste, the toreador music—the pageantry—in Act IV was too fast and mechanical, lacking the right pomp and swagger. But it was not as offensive as the overture. The opera got better and better as the evening wore on, which is the right trajectory.

By Act III, Clémentine Margaine had come into her own. In Act IV, she was pure—impure?—Carmen.

Our Carmen was a Frenchwoman, Clémentine Margaine. She was heard in Carnegie Hall last season with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under Riccardo Muti. She sang Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, and well. (For my review, go here.) On that occasion, French was a pleasure out of her mouth, and it was again last night.

La Carmencita, of course, is a Spanish Gypsy who sings and speaks French.

Madame Margaine did not have an especially distinguished Act I (like the company at large, to be sure). Her Habanera was perfectly competent but not always on pitch. Also, for an act or two, she seemed to be trying hard—too hard—to be a sexy Gypsy. This is written into the music, to a large degree.

Clémentine Margaine. Photo: Marty Sohl.

Her Séguidille was nice. As a bonus, it included a fabulous high B. In the Danse bohème—that delicious E-minor thing—she let out a pretty fair yelp.

By Act III, Margaine had come into her own. She sang with confidence and purpose. Her death music—or her card music, if you like—had the right inevitability. And in Act IV, she was pure—impure?—Carmen.

Our tenor, our Don José, was Yonghoon Lee, from South Korea. In a review of Il trovatore three years ago, I wrote this of Lee: “When he is tight, he is painful. When he is free, he is marvelous. And he was free all night long.” This was not true last night, unfortunately. Lee was sometimes tight—painfully so—and sometimes free. He had a struggle in his aria (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”), but he was determined that his B flat at the climax be piano, not belted. And it was indeed piano.

This brings up a point about Yonghoon Lee: He gives his all. He tries valiantly. Often, he sings valiantly, and heroically, and beautifully. This valiance is not to be gainsaid (as William F. Buckley Jr. would say).

Is he a comfortable actor? No. But he earns an A for effort, and you root for him.

Micaëla was Guanqun Yu, a Chinese soprano. She was clean, pure, and lyrical; sweet, affecting, and winsome. In other words, she was a Micaëla. I would have liked more sound out of her from time to time, but this mattered little. There was another soprano onstage, namely Sydney Mancasola, playing a very different role: Frasquita, a member of Carmen’s posse. She was accurate, spirited, and fun—just what the doctor ordered.

Doing the honors as Escamillo, the bullfighter, was Kyle Ketelsen, an American baritone. He too was what the doctor ordered: suave and swaggering, in his singing and in his acting.

So, another night, another Carmen. What a masterpiece, by the way—unstalable. I said to a young friend, “Did you ever see The Bad News Bears?” This was a 1976 movie, starring Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal. Its soundtrack was Carmen. Many—millions?—learned the opera that way, or at least heard some of its music.

My friend countered with, “How about The Simpsons?” He meant this—which is great. Immortal.

Clémentine Margaine. Photo: Marty Sohl.

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