Carmen

Georges Bizet, libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a play by Prosper Mérimée
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Elina Garanca as Carmen and Roberto Alagna as Don Jos Credit: Ken Howard

At the Paris première of Carmen in 1875, the French critics thought the story scandalous and obscene and dismissed Georges Bizet’s music as garish. It played to poor houses. The Opera-Comique’s respectable middle-class audiences found the opera too realistic and risqué for their taste.

Bizet died three month later, aged 36, unaware that he had composed the world’s most popular and greatest opera. Lurid crimes passionnels have perennially proved popular at the box office and Carmen is always a good choice for somebody coming to opera for the first time. The drama and the music are at the highest level.

Richard Eyre’s excellent production for The Met, New York was first seen in 2010 when Bizet’s feverish and intoxicating score was conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

Don Jose (Robert Alagna), a bit of a mummy’s boy, should have stayed with Micaela (Barbara Frittoli), his nice bourgeois girlfriend, instead of deserting the army and turning smuggler in order to have sex with a fierce and dangerous gypsy (Elina Garanca) who thrives not only on her beauty and sexual prowess but also on her contempt for men.

Eyre updates the action to the Spanish Civil War when Spain is no longer a nice place. The way the randy soldiers treat Micaela will leave many viewers uncomfortable and worrying for her safety.

During the overture, the curtain, jaggedly and bloodily slashed, opens fractionally to reveal two dancers, Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey, dancing a sensual pas de deux, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. They also dance during the Prelude to Act III, giving the production an extra frisson.

Elina Garanca’s Carmen, a terrific performance vocally and physically, is up there with the best. She and Roberto Alagna have the chemistry the roles need. Jose, madly, wildly in love, will never let her go. The more he pleads with her to give up toreador Escamillo (Teddy Tahu Rhodes), the more she goads him to kill her and the greater the excitement. After her murder, Rob Howell’s set rotates for a second tableau inside the bullring with Escamillo and the bull he has just murdered.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera on Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($3.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch