Georges BIZET (1838 - 1875)
Carmen - opera in 4 acts (1875)
Carmen - Elina Garanča (mezzo); Don José - Roberto Alagna (tenor); Micaëla - Barbara Frittoli (soprano); Escamillo - Teddy Tahu Rhodes (bass-baritone); Frasquita - Elizabeth Caballero (soprano); Mercédès - Sandra Piques Eddy (mezzo); Moralès - Trevor Scheunemann (baritone); Zuniga - Keith Miller (bass); Le Dancaïre - Earle Patriarco (baritone); Le Remendado - Keith Jameson (tenor)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 16 January 2010
Picture format: 1080i60 HD 16:9. All regions.
NTSC / Colour / 16:9 (Filmed in High Definition); Sound formats: PCM Stereo DTS HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles, French (original language), English, German, Spanish. Menu language English
Extras: Backstage at the Met with Elina Garanča, Roberto Alagna and others. Hosted by Renée Fleming
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON BLU-RAY 073 4799 [167:00 + 9:00]

Bizet died at the early age of thirty-six. This was shortly after the premiere of Carmen at the Opéra Comique at which the work was coolly received. The audience finding the story of the eponymous anti-hero somewhat immoral. That Puritanism, considering the goings-on in Paris society during the recently demised Second Empire, smells of hypocrisy. The Opéra Comique presented works with spoken dialogue and it was in this form that the opera was premiered. Whilst in recent years some productions have gone back to this original form the international success and popularity of Carmen dates from its 1875 Vienna production and involves the sung recitatives that the composer’s friend, Ernest Guiraud, added after the Bizet’s death in place of the spoken dialogue. Spoken French dialogue can present difficulties to a multi-national cast and, as here, the practice in recorded performance has often been to utilise the Guiraud sung recitatives with a few interjections of spoken dialogue.
My colleague reviewing the DVD of this performance, and shortly after having seen it live, found much to praise (see review). This production by Richard Eyre, premiered on New Year’s Eve 2010, and transmitted to cinemas worldwide just over two weeks later, and with a significant cast change, replaced the 1996 Zeffirelli spectacular at the Met. I recently reviewed his version from Vienna conducted by Carlos Kleiber (see review) and noted that he so cluttered the stage with bodies and action that certain of the stage instructions could not be carried out. The updating to Spain in the 1930s means that not all the stage instructions are carried out here. Why Don José ties Carmen’s hands with rope, when she is already handcuffed escapes me. She then pushes over Zuniga rather than José to escape, an illogical producer idiosyncrasy. Such are the quirks of modern producers as is the absence of any spectators during the final confrontation between Carmen and Don José. There are compensations such as the final tableau of the view of Escamillo, standing with sword, over a dead bull and the whole in vivid red light.
Generally the large representational set by Rob Howell, together with the rotating Met stage, allows the story to unfold in a comprehensible manner. The use of blue lighting for the darker locations has something of a down side with the likes of Zuniga’s shaven head reflecting the colour! The presence of dancers in the entr’actes is largely meaningless. However, ultimately a performance of Carmen depends, above all and more importantly than in many operas, on the singers and particularly on the title role. In this respect, the Met landed lucky with the withdrawal of the soprano Angela Gheorghiu and her replacement by the mezzo Elina Garanča; Bizet’s music is far better sung by a mezzo. Not only does Ms Garanča sing with wonderful enunciation, but also with meaning and a wide variety of tonal colour. In her singing and acting she exudes Carmen’s sexuality whilst not over-egging it with hip swinging and flaunting.
Carmen’s lover, the enchanted Don José slowly disintegrates over the four acts as a consequence of his infatuation with Carmen. Francophone Roberto Alagna does less well vocally in this role. The sweet-voiced and mellifluous lyric tenor who first hit the headlines at Covent Garden nearly twenty years ago, is now a rather coarse semi-spinto. Too many spinto roles mean his tone has become grainy and his effort at a softly sung B-flat at the end of the Flower Song is not easy on the ear (CH.30). Micaëla, the girl his mother wants José to marry, is sung by a mature-looking Barbara Frittoli. In act one she manages the sung and acted interactions with the troop of soldiers well. However, in the long duet with José as he asks her to tell him of his mother, her large voice has difficulty in managing an elegant legato (CH.10). This is even more evident in her act three aria (CH.42) when her voice also shows signs of harshness at the top.
Even without considering that Teddy Tahu Rhodes had only a few hours notice that he was to make his Met. debut that afternoon as Escamillo, his is a good achievement. Tall and physically imposing his voice is strong and he manages the demanding tessitura well. He just needs a little more variety of colour and nuance whilst his performance here should lead to other opera house intendants calling. Keith Miller's sung and acted portrayal of lieutenant Zuniga portends his capacity for greater challenges. I have heard and seen better portrayals of the gypsy girls Frasquita and Mercédès, particularly in a leading house. The smugglers added colour in their acting and singing.
Along with Elina Garanča, the big plus of the performance is found in Yannick Nézet-Séguin. His idiomatic conducting has verve, vitality and sensitivity. Jimmy Levine is not missed in this performance.
The interval interviews and extras are bland rather than penetrating. The HD picture is excellent despite the blue lighting effects that were, perhaps, less evident in the theatre. All in all, and despite a flawed Micaëla, I still prefer the Royal Opera House performance with Jonas Kaufmann easily surpassing Alagna here and Anna Caterina Antonacci exuding sexuality even beyond Garanča’s achievement. Pappano is every bit as idiomatic as Nézet-Séguin and with perhaps a bit more bite in the dramatic dénouement (Decca DVD 074 3312).
Robert J Farr

Garanča’s performance and the conducting are the reasons to buy this issue.