Review: “Carmen” on PBS’s “Great Performances at the Met”

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I am absolutely enamored of Elina Garanca's Carmen, here shown in the opera's final scene with the jealous Don Jose, played by Roberto Alagno.

I have heard all the famous arias from “Carmen” throughout my life, but funnily enough have never actually seen the whole opera performed. The closest I’ve ever gotten is watching a performance of Matthew Bournes’s “The Car Man,” which doesn’t really count; I’d even rented recorded performances of the opera, which for some reason or other I just never got around to watching. But what a good thing it was that I’d withheld all this time, as seeing it performed at the Metropolitan Opera with the sultry Elina Garanca in the title role is perhaps the best way to be introduced to Bizet’s masterpiece. Not only did I get a sense of closure from being able to finally put context to the arias I’ve heard ad nauseam all my life, but Richard Eyre’s production also left me absolutely gobsmacked. I sometimes have a tendency to Wikipedia everything and spoil myself with barebones summaries of whatever it is I’m about to watch. But for some reason I never did for this, which was to my benefit as I was left on the edge of my seat anticipating what would happen next. The knife scene between Don Jose and Escamillo kept me in suspense, as did the final scene in which a jealous Jose confronts Carmen (I kept wondering, Will he or won’t he kill her?).

But backtracking a bit: “Carmen” is a four-act story about a gypsy and cigarette factory worker named Carmen who sets her eyes on a corporal, Don Jose. She stabs him in the heart with a flower, her way of marking her territory, so to speak. She is lawless in love, and she lives by a mantra: “If you don’t love me, I still might love you. But if I love you…Watch out!” She is also lawless in the sense that she consorts with crooks dealing in contraband. In fact, in order to prove his love for her, Carmen tells Jose to leave the army. She stirs up a hesitant Jose into fighting his superior out of jealousy, as he learns the office also had his eyes on Carmen. With no choice but to desert the army for his dishonorable act, Jose becomes one of the smugglers, becomes lawless like Carmen, free from law. But Carmen’s flings never last long, and by the time we see them next at the beginning of Act III, she’s already moved on, leaving poor Jose a hanger-on. He’s reached his expiration date but is stubbornly unwilling to let go. She explains her fickle nature in the third person thusly: “Carmen will never give in. She was born free, and she will die free.” She now has his eyes on Escamillo, an attractive toreador she’d met earlier but had passed on because she was still hot in her pursuit of Jose. When she accompanies Escamillo to a bullfight, Jose confronts her outside of the arena and begs her to return to him. But she is unwilling to budge, and prompted by her throwing back a ring he’d earlier presented to her, Jose stabs her with a knife, just as she had stabbed him earlier in the story. He returns the ring she’d taken in her finger, just as we see a silhouette of an officer about to shoot him. Inside the arena meanwhile, parallel to Carmen’s death, Escamillo has victoriously conquered the bull.

I don’t really have a point of reference to compare this production to (again, Bournes’s riff on the opera hardly counts), but I will say that Eyre’s production is highly relatable to a modern audience. It didn’t feel bogged down as being distinctly “operatic.” Eyre does away with the operatic veneer and exposes the truly relatable core of the story. Though the original opera is set in 1830, Eyre’s production fast forwards 100 years, using the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop, which I think is a master stroke in that it brings us at chronologically closer to the opera. I actually found myself shedding the reality that I was watching an opera, because I was just so immersed in the story. Jealousy, the desire for freedom in loving, the sting of rejection, we all understand that.

Not only does Garanca step into the role of Carmen, she owns it.

And where do I even start with Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca? Her portrayal of Carmen just totally did me in. Earthy, gritty, feisty, defiant, Garanca really went full-bore here. I totally believed her as a seductress, a sorceress, whether it be when she would “tra-la-la,” lick her lips, bare her cleavage, splay her legs, gyrate her hips, touch herself, or even engage in a bit of playful lesbian homoeroticism. But don’t get me wrong, the production is by no means raunchy; sensual is more the right word (it’s no pornography). Garanca’s performance is deserving of a million bravas, as the lady does it all. She sings with full investment in her unbridled character; she even dances! She is so full of verve, so sultry, that the sight of Roberto Alagna’s limp Don Jose (who looked like Andrew Lloyd Weber from a certain angle) kissing her made me just cringe, like I was watching a grimy hand leaving its dirt marks on a beautiful porcelain vase. But I digress… I highly suggest catching this “Carmen” on your local PBS station, even if just to watch Garanca’s performance, as she is just something else completely. A new exotic species that exceeds one’s imagination.

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