Georges Bizet, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a play by Prosper Mérimée
Metropolitan Opera House
Metropolitan Opera House, New York

Clémentine Margaine and the Cast of Carmen Credit: Marty Sohl
Roberto Alagna Credit: Marty Sohl
Carmen Credit: Marty Sohl

French mezzo Clémentine Margaine has become a bit of a Carmen specialist, performing the leading role in Bizet’s torrid opera around the world.

You can understand why, as she has a voice that is angelic, which makes a bittersweet contrast with the behaviour of the leading character in one of the Met’s favourite operas, now having surpassed 1,000 performances at the venue.

In particular, Sir Richard Eyre’s production, first seen at the opera house on the last day of 2009, is already beginning to obtain classic status, making regular returns to great public acclaim.

As well as showcasing the leading lady, it has proved to be a useful meal ticket for Roberto Alagna, who starred at that opening performance and returns to play the doomed Don José opposite Miss Margaine in the latest revival.

With the assistance of designer Rob Howell, who has created a series of towering edifices, culminating in a structure that looks like a Hieronymus Bosch Tower of Babel, Sir Richard has moved the drama forward half a century or so to the Franco era and the Spanish Civil War.

This fits perfectly with the story of a morally dubious gypsy working in a Spanish cigarette factory whose love life involves more army officers than eventually prove wise for her own or their peace of mind or body.

The evening is foreshadowed by a short but very beautiful ballet that takes place in a sliver of stage space illuminated by blood-red lighting that returns in more sinister circumstances at the evening’s tear-jerking finale, which shows off leading performers at their very best. The dance is choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, who later injects a memorable, scene-setting flamenco,

In the early stages of a performance that runs to a little over 3¼ hours, and managed to add an additional 30 minutes due to technical problems at the performance under review, Don José is introduced as something of a mummy’s boy.

Worshipped by his childhood sweetheart, Micaëla, sweetly sung and portrayed by Aleksandra Kurzak, he seems destined for as happy a life as it is possible to achieve as a wartime army officer, safe in the arms of the young lady.

His meeting with seductive Carmen proves fatal as, in true operatic style. Don José is almost literally poleaxed by the raucous gypsy.

The inconstant lover spreads her passion widely, first seducing another army officer and then, more significantly, the toreador Escamillo, Alexander Vinogradov proving to have the kind of rich bass that appears to emerge from so far down in his stomach that it might almost be in his toes.

Conductor Louis Langrée benefits from the expertise of the Met’s orchestra, who are always a treat to hear but also a strong chorus, with the children particularly memorable.

In addition, the gypsy pairing of Frasquita and Mercédès sung by Sydney Mancasola and Samantha Hankey provides some welcome light relief as the tragedy moves inexorably towards its dénouement.

This is an iconic production and, pleasingly, the matinée performance on 2 February will be broadcast to viewers around the world as part of Met’s Live in HD series, which can now be seen in more than 2,200 movie theatres across over 70 countries around the world.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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