Bizet’s masterpiece is a perennial crowd-pleaser and as seen in brilliant HD through Fathom Events, this version of Carmen has a great deal to recommend it. The production has seen fit to set the story during the Spanish Civil War, and while the ragged appearance of everyone adds to low-brow nature of the story – this is grand opera about the working class, after all – it manages to be gritty and epic all at once helped by some superb sets and attractive costume choices.
Roberto Alagna as Don Jose is utterly believable as the stalwart and loyal soldier. In his early scenes with Michaela, played by his real-life wife Alexsandra Kurzak, you can see a man who is content with is lot and who has a happy and placid future lined up with the pious girl-next-door. It is clear the characters’ affection for each other is genuine, and their voices blend wonderfully as they sing together. Kurzak, though, really steals their scenes as she is acting up a storm here and gives Michaela a real sweetness, genuineness and life that this character can often lack.
The Met’s chorus absolutely kills it in this production. From the bored soldiers casually sexually harassing Michaela to the jaded girls at the cigarette factory, to carousing gypsies, to bullfight attendees, every time the chorus takes the stage they not only sing wonderfully, but they are doing all sorts of interesting business that makes this production fabulous to watch. Their scenes are in no way filler while you wait for the leads to sing an aria. What they do has meaning and creates the world that Carmen and her lovers inhabit.
I know she has played it everywhere and earned raves. Maybe she was having an off night. But I was really underwhelmed, not by the vocals as much as the acting of Clementine Margaine as Carmen. She has the looks for certain, but in the filmed production she seems to be relying on that a great deal to carry off this part. I just didn’t buy what she was selling at all, other than sexiness. She said wonderful things about the character in the interview section (always such value in these broadcasts) and clearly understands what she’s going for, but I didn’t see that translate into the performance. And her Habenera was weak. If you’re playing Carmen, you have to slay with it. It’s the audience’s first glimpse of you. It’s not that difficult an aria, but you have to land in Don Jose’s world like a bomb going off to make him break with Michaela and throw away his life for you. I just didn’t see Margaine earning that with this performance. It’s also an aria referencing the freedom of birds and gypsies and a warning to anyone to not get too invested, because Carmen doesn’t. And her physical movements were too heavy and crude somehow to capture Carmen’s fickleness and mystery. It wasn’t seductive. It was crass.
And she only got more crass when she was arrested after the fight with the other cigarette girl, and started grabbing at Don Jose. This is probably not Margaine’s fault. It’s most likely on Director Sir Richard Eyre. Wild and free doesn’t mean wrap your legs around somebody or essentially sexually harass them into submission, but that’s what sends old Don Jose over the edge and now he’s supposedly in love.
This is also the first glimpse we get of Carmen’s mysticism. And it also falls completely flat. The spiritual and superstitious aspects of this production are entirely neglected. You do not get that she is having a premonition or that she believes in magic. This lack of set up makes the card scene later completely fail to work. You do not get that being a gypsy is part of Carmen’s life. That she is deeply invested in her own culture and is a genuine mystic, which is TEXT and necessary to set up her premonition of her own death and her belief in its inevitability.
Alagna and Kurzak do the emotional heavy-lifting throughout. It would be nice if they’d gotten more help from Margaine, who seems to have taken Carmen’s cold fickleness to heart. They are so warm, seeing warmth from her would help explain Don Jose’s attraction. And her coolness is matched by Alexander Vinogradov as Escamillio. He is cold and pompous, though he sings wonderfully. Perhaps we are supposed to imagine that cold Carmen has finally met her true match in him. I don’t know.
It just seems that Carmen, which is a story of low passion and superstition as much as anything, isn’t really served by this cool detachment. I just never bought why Escamillio would want her. He needs her like a hole in the head and Vinogradov seems incapable of anything but self-regard. It’s like a big emotional hole at the center of this very emotional story.
I have to make note here of everyone else playing Gypsies. They absolutely rock these small, but vital, roles. Javier Arrey as Le Danciare and Eduardo Valdes as Le Remendado, not only look fabulous as the brash smugglers with a plan, but they also sing and act very well and you believe they are tough and canny.
Sydney Mancasola as Frasquita and Samantha Hankey as Mercedes, Carmen’s friends, are a whole other level of fabulous, though. Not only are they tall and beautiful and gorgeously costumed, these two really get the gypsy thing and bring all of the coquettishness, cultural immersion and mysticism to their parts that Margaine lacks. Every time they are on stage they are mesmerizing and you notice it especially during the fortune telling scene. Their delight seems genuine as they compete at building castles in the air despite the fact that they’re in a squalid den of thieves, Carmen’s horror is as deep as a puddle. And when they warn her about Jose’s presence at the bullfight, you feel their fear for her is genuine.
The story grinds on to its inevitable conclusion with Alagna doing all of the heavy acting here. He does a great job of being truly unhinged and toxic with guilt at what he’s done and blaming Carmen but still desperate to win her back and perhaps start over somewhere else. She has gone up in the world and has no intention of going back down, so she coldly refuses him, Margaine is excellent at cold, and he murders her for daring to insist on making her own decisions. It comes off as stubbornness in Margaine’s interpretation rather than a belief in fate, but that’s a nice and feminist statement that seems in line with what she’s going for here.
Carmen really is a timely opera for right now, with its examination of toxic machismo and masculinity coming up against someone who is truly a self-determining heroine. Sexual freedom, calling the shots, making her own choices, they’re not punished by the opera so much as by that one guy who handles rejection by grabbing a weapon and killing a woman with it. Carmen is always worth seeing, and this production certainly is.
As usual the Fathom Events production is not only beautifully recorded and filmed, but has wonderful supplemental interviews with the leads. Alagna and Kurzak were truly delightful and Margaine came off as a thoughtful, serious lover of this role and this music. There was also a charming interview with three of the children’s chorus members and gives one hope for opera’s lively future.
Ticket information for upcoming productions is always available at Fathom Events.