Carmen is inexhaustible, and I'm talking about both the character and the opera that bears her name. There never will be a definitive version of the work, and that makes it all the easier to welcome any new production that successfully advances a singular and compelling approach to this familiar work. Richard Eyre's Metropolitan Opera staging of Carmen premiered in December 2009, and was seen on a live HD transmission in theaters all across the country on January 16th, 2010. It created a sensation, and justly so.
Conductor Yannick Nezet-Sequin, here making his Met debut, bears a large part of the responsibility for those enthusiastic reviews. The Prelude—fleet, exhilarating, but vibrant and gracefully phrased—sets the tone for what follows, which is a youthful, and decidedly French, take on the work. Nezet-Sequin draws a precise, utterly transparent sound from the orchestra that highlights detail without ever losing momentum. The conductor's tempos are brisk, intense, but never too aggressive or driven. He proves to be a sympathetic accompanist, giving the singers lots of breathing room for their big moments. Micaela's "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante" is all the more deeply affecting at Nezet-Sequin's steady, but spacious pacing. But it's in the big production numbers that he really pulls out all the stops and "Les voici! Voici la quadrille," to take one example, is simply thrilling.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Roberto Alagna is the Don Jose of our time, and he's even more impressive here than he was for Micheal Plasson on EMI. His sense of the role has deepened, and if anything, his voice sounds even richer. Garanca's altogether convincing, unsentimental Carmen is more restless than obsessed, wanton and sexy to be sure; a character who delights in her capriciousness. She seems completely at home in the role, and her gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice has a buoyancy and confidence that work very well in this lively production. Equally impressive is Barbara Frittoli's vulnerable but strong-hearted Micaela. Teddy Tahu Rhodes was a last-minute substitution, and sometimes he appears to be trying too hard — Escamillo on steroids. But the voice is rock-solid throughout. As for the Met chorus, one could hardly ask for a more committed or vocally secure contribution. The street urchins are especially impressive. Good going, kids.
Richard Eyre's set is an ancient Coliseum that turns on its axis for each act creating appropriate, atmospheric stage pictures. He's set the opera during the Spanish Civil War, an oddly sensible choice in these days of Eurotrash productions. It certainly gives Don Jose's desertion a more political resonance than it might have had otherwise. On the DVD, Guy Halvorson's direction is workmanlike and unobtrusive. In several other Met HD productions, I've sometimes felt there were too many closeups, but Alagna and Garanca are such good actors, so completely into their roles, that they bear up well even under such intense scrutiny. There's a real sense of intimacy between this Carmen and her Don Jose. The sound is very well balanced throughout. My only complaint, and it's a very minor one, is that the ballet pantomimes Eyre uses during the entr'actes are mostly beside the point.
On DVD, this set doesn't entirely displace David McVicar's Glyndebourne production that features a surprisingly cruel, man-eating Anne Sofie von Otter as Carmen and Phillippe Jordan's idiomatic conducting. But it will give intense pleasure to anyone who loves this work. In fact I think it can pretty much hold its own against any of the more famous recorded Carmens, including those conducted by Carlos Kleiber, Sir Thomas Beecham and Claudio Abbado. These excitingly conducted versions are compromised by less than stellar Carmens (Elena Obraztsova for Kleiber, Victoria de los Angeles for Beecham, and Teresa Berganza for Abbado). In the end, it's hard to argue with perfection, and this DVD provides convincing evidence that on January 16, 2010 on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House everything — the singing, conducting, and production — went about as well as it could go. Highly recommended.
The less said the better about Granca's recital disc. It took my startled ears a while to acknowledge that they were listening to the same singer. In the Met production, Garanca breathes fire; but here, in repertory you'd think would be congenial, well within her comfort zone (including two excerpts from Carmen itself), Granca seems overly cautious, uninvolved. I kept hoping that on the next track, the next song, she'd come to life, rise to the challenge. But alas, the program is all too uniformly dispiriting. I'd take a pass on this one, especially if you're a fan of the singer.