WASHINGTON, November 8, 2014 – The New York Metropolitan Opera’s most recent HD simulcast, a reprise of its 2009 production of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” proved a great success this past week, if attendance at Tysons AMC in Virginia is any indication. Saturday’s live performance was close to sold out, and Wednesday evening’s recorded reprise made the turnstiles hum as well.
And why not? The Met’s HD productions occur well into each opera’s run, a time when it’s A-list cast members, orchestra, and backstage personnel have everything humming perfectly. So what audiences get, for the most part, is the best of the best.
Bizet’s “Carmen” is popular enough, but it’s even better when you have one of its newest and best star interpreters starring in the title role. That mezzo-soprano, in this case, is Georgian (as in the Eastern European country) mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili. In a short period of time, she’s proven to be the best Carmen, in our opinion, since DC’s own Denyce Graves dominated the role in the 1990s.
Also starring in the opera’s HD edition were tenor Aleksandrs Atonenko as one of opera’s most hapless anti-heroes, the ill-fated and ill-matched Don José; bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov as the swaggering bullfighter Escamillo; and soprano Anita Hartig as José’s spurned fiancé Micaëla.
All the singers were in fine form for this live simulcast, particularly Ms. Rachvelishvili, whose work in Borodin’s “Prince Igor” we greatly admired last season.
In our minds, the ideal Carmen is slinky and sultry. But the rather more voluptuous Georgian mezzo turned our notions on their collective head with an aggressive, sexually charged performance, fearlessly portraying this wanton independent gypsy smuggler with great intensity and abandon. No wonder “Carmen” proved such a shocker when it was first performed in the 19th century. Its heroine was, in her way, a feminist before there even was such a thing.
Ms. Rachvelishvili’s acting in the role was spot-on. But her singing was even more impressive, as her well-supported, deep, yet often flashy mezzo dominated every scene in which she appeared.
Almost any Carmen can easily overwhelm poor Don José. In some ways, this is the least gratifying role a tenor can sing, having to endure being dissed, abused, and discarded by Carmen throughout the entire opera. Yet José does get some wonderful musical moments in this opera, particularly in the first and second acts. Mr. Atonenko makes the most of them, and is particularly skillful in his duets with his equally hapless fiancée, Micaëla, sung in this performance by soprano Anita Hartig.
Mr. Atonenko also does surprisingly well in the acting category. You can’t do much to rescue Don José’s character, but you can make his actions more understandable, which is precisely what Mr. Antonenko does, portraying his soldier-turned-smuggler as an increasingly frustrated and enraged victim of something he thought was love—which was, of course, for Carmen, just a slightly prolonged one-night stand.
The versatile Ildar Abdrazakov—whom we’ve recently seen in these broadcasts as the title character in “Igor” as well as in the lighter role, last month, of Mozart’s Figaro (“Marriage of Figaro”)—turned in a sparkling performance as the swaggering Escamillo, the acclaimed bullfighter who routinely displays the kind of boldness and decisiveness that José sorely lacks.
Mr. Abdrazakov clearly enjoyed the role, and his bold but passionate delivery of this opera’s signature “Toreador” song brought down the house, not only at the Met but in our Tyson’s Corner cinema as well.
This critic is somewhat partial to the pair of lovely arias Bizet bestowed upon José’s cruelly spurned fiancée Micaëla even though many writers believe them to be second rate.
Whatever the final verdict on Bizet’s music, however, it would be hard to deny that soprano Anita Hartig was any less than perfection in both her opportunities to shine. Both her first and third-act arias were delivered with a perfect blend of wistfulness and passion, and they again brought down the house—or, rather, both houses.
Moving the opera’s time period from its original early 19th century setting to 1930s Franco-era Spain spruced updated the action without making it feel forced, a sense and sensibility largely attributable to Rob Howell’s bomb-damaged but still functional city and country settings, all continuously repositioned via a central turntable, perhaps the same mechanism that supported the Met’s recent HD performance of “Figaro.”
Particularly impressive was the bullfighting arena in the final act, which swiveled during the last notes of the finale to unveil the interior of the arena and a symbolic surprise, with the carcass of a freshly slain bull mirroring Carmen’s parallel fate at the hands of Don José.
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was crisply and enthusiastically conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado during this simulcast—although we might have preferred for the overture’s tempo to be a bit more reasonable rather than rushed.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars).
The Met’s next HD theatrical simulcast will take place at local theaters across the country and the world on November 22 when the company presents a pre-Thanksgiving performance of Rossini’s popular comic opera, “The Barber of Seville.” For tickets and information, visit the Met’s website for ticket prices and to access lists of local participating theaters near you.