By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note this can be viewed at www.metopera.org.
Even people who have never set foot in an opera house know the music from Carmen, Bizet’s iconic tale of the irresistible and free-spirited Gypsy whose fatal flirtation with the jealous soldier Don José becomes too entangled for either of them to unravel. The compelling story, with its parade of energetic, hummable, toe-tapping melodies, makes the four acts fly by and ensures that this music will stay with you long after the curtain comes down.
For the Met’s second go-around with this opera (the first one in March featured Elina Garanča and Roberto Alagna), Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili (we’ve seen her recently in Aida, Adriana Lecouvreur, and Prince Igor – all roles I much prefer her in to this one!) gives a hard edged performance as Bizet’s iconic gypsy – a woman who tries (and of course fails) to live by her own rules. Aleksandrs Antonenko (also in Aida and Otello) is Don José, the soldier who falls under her spell, and Ildar Abdrazakov (Anna Bolena, Price Igor, and Semiramide) plays the dashing toreador, Escamillo, the swaggering bullfighter who steals Carmen away from Don José—and seals her tragic fate. Anita Hartig is the gentle girl back home, Micaëla, and Pablo Heras-Casado conducts Richard Eyre’s hit production, set in 1930’s Spain.
This, of course, is unquestionably one of the world’s most popular operas. Jam packed with familiar melodies (the Habanera, the Seguidilla, the Toreador song….) you can hum along from beginning to end! It’s basically the story of a fiery gypsy and a young soldier from the country who becomes so obsessed with her that when she leaves him for the handsome matador, Escamillo, he feels compelled either to win her back or to kill her. It’s a tragic opera – so you can guess which is the actual ending.
For those who are not familiar with the story, we are introduced to the sultry Carmen outside a cigarette factory in Seville as the factory girls come out for a break and all the men and soldiers in town gather around to ogle them. The guard changes, and as Don José comes on duty, Carmen sings her famous habanera – a song about love – it is like a rebellious bird. The men all seek her favor, but as she ends her song she tosses a flower at the only one who does not seem to care – Don José. The women are called back into the factory, and Micaëla, who has been searching for Don José enters and gives him a letter – and a kiss – from his mother. He asks for news of her, “Parle-moi de ma mère!.. (Tell me of my mother) and there is a lovely duet, after which he reads in the letter that his mother wishes he would return home soon and marry Micaëla. She leaves in embarrassment promising to return later.
Just then, a disruption arises in the factory which spills out into the street – Carmen has been in a knife fight with another worker and has wounded her. Zuniga, the officer of the guard, orders José to tie her hands while he prepares the prison warrant. Left alone with José, Carmen beguiles him with her seguidilla, in which she sings of a sensuous night of dancing and passion with her lover—whoever that may be—at her friend Lillas Pastia’s tavern. Mesmerized, José agrees to her plan and helps her escape by freeing her hands as she is being led away by the soldiers, she pushes her escort to the ground and runs away laughing. José is arrested for dereliction of duty and thrown into prison.
Act II takes place at Lillas Pastia’s tavern two months later. Carmen and her friends Frasquita and Mercédès are entertaining Zuniga and the other officers – as well as their smuggler friends whose band they have secretly joined – “Les tringles des sistres tintaient” (the rods of the sistrums (percussion instruments) jingled….). A chorus and festive procession announce the arrival of the famous toreador Escamillo – “Vivat, vivat le Toréro.” Invited inside, he introduces himself with the “Toreador Song” – “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre” and immediately sets his sights on Carmen, who brushes him aside. She is expecting José who has just been released from detention. José finally arrives and Carmen treats him to an enticing private dance “Je vais danser en votre honneur…” (I will dance in your honor), but her song is joined by a distant bugle call from the barracks. When José says he must immediately return to duty, she mocks him, saying he does not love her. He answers by showing her the flower she threw at him in the square “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” and telling her it was the only thing that kept him alive for the past two months in prison. Unconvinced, Carmen demands he show his love for her by leaving immediately with her. José refuses to become a deserter, but as he prepares to go back to the barracks, Zuniga enters looking for Carmen. He and José square off and begin to fight. They are separated by the returning smugglers, who restrain Zuniga. Needless to say, having attacked a superior officer, José now has no choice but to join Carmen and the smugglers “Suis-nous à travers la campagne.“
The last two acts are equally dramatic and equally tuneful. At the smuggler’s hideout in the mountains, Carmen is obviously tiring of José’s possessiveness and jealousy. Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès entertain themselves by singing the famous “Card” trio “Melons! Coupons!” and reading their fortunes from the cards. No matter who deals, the cards are consistently foretelling Carmen’s death – and José’s. Meanwhile, both Micaëla and Escamillo are wandering in the mountains – she is looking for José and he is looking for Carmen. Escamillo, however, finds José instead and they almost kill each other before the fight is once again broken up by the smugglers. Escamillo invites everyone there, especially Carmen, to his next bull fight in Seville. Micaëla, determined to rescue José from Carmen sings her aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” (I tell myself that nothing frightens me) and finally finds José, convincing him to come back home with her because his mother is dying. As he leaves, he warns Carmen that they will certainly meet again very soon.
The final act takes place back in Seville as a large crowd cheers on the bullfighters in a reprise of the March of the Toreadors. Carmen, now Escamillo’s lover, is resplendent in a beautiful gown and mantilla, but is warned by Frasquita and Mercédès that José has been seen lurking nearby. Alone when the crowd enters the bull ring, but not afraid, she is confronted by the desperate José “C’est toi !”, “C’est moi !” While he pleads vainly for her to return to him, cheers are heard from the arena. As José makes his last entreaty, Carmen contemptuously throws the ring he gave her to the ground and attempts to enter the arena. He completely loses control and fatally stabs her just as Escamillo is acclaimed by the crowd……
This is an opera well worth hearing again and again, and this particular production is no exception. I use the word “hearing” advisedly — this is not my favorite cast to watch – not by a long shot. The original Met stream of this same production in March with Elina Garanča and Roberto Alagna was far better – even though Alagna is not my favorite Don José either. Antonenko, however, is even less convincing in this role. Further, a truly great Carmen has to have an unmistakably sultry quality to her singing and her movement – be self-confident, and yet seem both vulnerable and irresistible. Rachvelishvili’s portrayal will likely not buckle any male knees – Garanča’s was much better. Nevertheless, the music is wonderful – and the singing is certainly good – if not exceptional. It’s well worth a listen!
1. Anita Rachvelishvili, as Carmen in the Met’s 2014 production of Bizet’s “Carmen.” Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
2. Anita Hartig as Micaëla and Aleksandrs Antonenko as Don José in Bizet’s “Carmen.” Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
3. Jennifer Johnson Cano as Mercédès, Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role, and Kiri Deonarine as Frasquita in Bizet’s “Carmen.” Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
4. Ildar Abdrazakov as Escamillo in Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Met, 2014. Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
5. Aleksandrs Antonenko as Don José and Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen.” Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
6. Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen with Aleksandrs Antonenko as Don José, in Richard Eyre’s “Carmen” at the Met, 2014. Photo Credit: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times.