Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Review by Philip Fisher
There can be few people in the world who enjoyed their New Year's Eve 2009 more than Sir Richard Eyre. To stand on stage at the end of your Met debut receiving enthusiastic applause from some 4,000 vociferous guests at a gala opening night must rank with the greatest highs of a distinguished career.
The former Artistic Director of the National Theatre had surrounded himself with friends for this rethinking of the popular classic but all of the early headlines focused on his Diva.
The original plan was that Angela Gheorghiu would play the leading lady opposite the husband from whom she recently separated, Roberto Alagna.
In the event, showing the artistic temperament that so often comes with the voice, she cut back on all but two of the performances, even ducking the flagships of opening night and the HD broadcast to over 1,000 venues worldwide on 16th January.
Miss Gheorghiu really missed out, which was all to the benefit of her Latvian-born replacement Elina Garanca, who conquered the Met with a performance of vibrant sexiness as the gypsy cigarette girl with too great a capacity for love.
Sir Richard and his British backstage team led by designer Rob Howell have moved the action to the Spanish Civil War, which adds a drabness at times but creates a greater contrast in the moments of greatest spectacle, particularly the march of the bullfighters.
The main elements of the set are two curving, red-topped walls that have something of the gory look of severed limbs.
These revolve to take us swiftly between the various settings from barracks to bullring via cigarette factory and, best of all, smugglers' hideout in the hills.
The colour, when it comes, is spectacular. Rob Howell gives Miss Garanca the sexiest of designer frocks to complement her flowing jet black hair, generally showing as much cleavage as possible. She starts in black with a dotted blouse, making her instantly recognisable amongst dozens of beige-clad colleagues. When she is on the run, Carmen's costume is reminiscent of Matisse's three Odalisques sitting just up the road at the other Met.
The finale is unforgettable, partly because the heroine is by then wearing a stunning black number riven by a doubly symbolic scarlet slash into which a desperate, deserted Don Jose plunges a killing knife. This mirrors the 60 foot high stage curtain and presents the marketing teams with tremendous possibilities.
As the knife goes in, lighting designer Peter Mumford creates a defining closing image, with the cast plunged into blood-red light to close a tragic evening to remember.
Sir Richard opens each scene with a short, (dirty) danced prologue, choreographed by yet another Brit, Christopher Wheeldon.
The ballets are both balletic and raunchy and set the scene for an opera combining Bizet's rousing music, conducted by another highly successful Met debutant, Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Prosper Mérimée's story of illicit love long before it became fashionable.
From the moment that she emerges from a factory seemingly located in the bowels of the Sevillano earth, Miss Garanca shows off her lovely mezzo, quickly using it to seduce Alagna's Corporal Don Jose but also almost every man in town (and dare one suggest it, the opera house).
This eventually creates friction on two fronts. Don Jose is already in love with his hometown sweetheart, Barbara Frittoli's suitably innocent Micaëla. It takes time for her big moment to arrive but soprano Miss F shines vocally in a scene high up in the hills as she mourns her lost love.
The competition for Carmen's hand (or should that be body?) is fiercer, led by toreador Escamillo. Inevitably, Mariusz Kwiecien looks as dashing as his rival and gives several great renditions of the Toreador's Song, at the last joined in rousing fashion by the chorus.
Most eyes and ears though will be on the leading pair and if Miss Gheorghiu will forgive me, they make a lovely couple. They also know how to sing and assisted by Sir Richard Eyre's exciting staging, ensure that this Carmen will long live in the memory.