FilmNew YorkOperaReview

Met Opera Live: Carmen

Reviewer: Thom Punton

Conductor: Daniele Rustioni

Director: Carrie Cracknell

Music: George Bizet

Libretto: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy

The New York Met’s new production of George Bizet’s bombastic earwormy tragedy takes as its backdrop a modern-day America where the rodeo is the alternative to the bullring and pickup trucks are the chosen mode of transport for the rebels. It’s a populist choice by the English director Carrie Cracknell, swapping the frilly escapism of nineteenth-century Europe for a more familiar yet unilluminating landscape. For an opera that through the Spanish-tinged music and settings evokes a charged exoticism, this close-to-home setting loses some of the magic.

At times it feels like the approach might be that of a hyperreal limbo of American iconography – a baseball bat, petrol pumps, pick-up trucks, cowboys, rodeos. The choice of scenery in the opening suggests a more dystopian take. The female workers in the factory seem rather like detainees in an all-female Guantanamo Bay. They are fenced in, being gawked at by guards, dressed in baby pink overalls. It’s as if there’s a Handmaid’s Tale-style segregation in place, where the gender normativity of pink is forced on them to remind them of their roles as love objects/child-bearers. Though it turns out this is just the back of a factory, the interactions between the sexes are mainly based on the constant search for love and little else.

When Carmen makes her entrance, she immediately explains how she will use her feminine powers over the men who follow her round and ultimately break their hearts. Aigul Akhmetshina as Carmen has a severe, commanding presence with disdain for the men falling at her feet. The idea of freedom comes up as essential to the way she goes through life, to the point where, for the sake of it, she feels it’s her right to ensnare the man least interested in her, Don José.

Watching this performance live-streamed in a cinema means that we get a great view of all the action, making it feel like we’re all in the best seats of the house. The subtitles are easier to read than at live opera and the sound is fantastic, with the full power of the orchestra blasting those catchy, rousing melodies through the speakers. However, the close-ups of Akhmetshina unfortunately highlight some of the less convincing ends of her acting range. Though her voice is extraordinary in control and power with a rich, resonant tone, there is not always a great deal of nuance in the seductive acting or fight scenes.

The low-key would-be romantic story between Micaëla and Don José has more depth of feeling. The flirting inherent in the passed-on kiss from Don José’s mother, though laughably Freudian, has more frisson than much of Carmen’s draping herself across all the men and scenery. Micaëla represents the wholesome life of Don José’s hometown, where his mother is waiting for him to return. We see here a fork in the road and watch him rush headlong down the one that leads to trouble. Angel Blue sings Micaëla with a confidence that transforms the vulnerability and anxiety of her character into passion, integrity and agency. Piotr Beczala’s Don José is a pathetic character, a mummy’s boy, with a perpetually self-pitying look on his face.

Don José is the victim of Carmen’s manipulation, encapsulated by the scene where she gets him sent to prison for not incarcerating her for fighting, by promising him a fun night on the town. Though emasculated, the seed of “love” that Carmen has planted in him by giving him a flower keeps growing in prison to the extent that when he gets out he is tormented by her emotional blackmail, wrestling with whether he loves or hates her. When he gets caught by his commanding officer, he has no choice but to run away and join their band of outlaws.

In Act III the mountain hideout from the original 1875 production is here turned into a wasteland wherein the pick-up truck from Act II lies burnt out. The post-apocalyptic feel sets an uneasy tone to the second half. The honeymoon period is over for Carmen and Don José, they argue, and Carmen decides she loves the flashy “toreador” Escamillo (Kyle Ketelson), here in the form of a cowboy king, a champion rancher. He is faintly ridiculous and the famous “toreador” chorus captures this strutting pomposity. He is the Chad to Don José’s beta-male.

Cracknell’s staging is not extreme enough to portray a disintegrating modern world and not incisive enough to hold up a mirror to the American dream. A nod is made at the end to the stirrings of a female uprising (a call back perhaps to the dystopia of the opening scene) but we’re not seeing Cracknell’s promised feminist vision here. It could’ve been great to see the irreverence and playfulness she showed in her adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. It was a safe bet that didn’t quite pay off, saved by reliably top-class performances from the singers and orchestra.

Runs in New York until 25 May 2024

Met Opera Encore: Carmen at cinemas on 31 January

The Reviews Hub Score

Let down by staging

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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