By David Salazar ( | First Posted: Sep 29, 2012 02:22 PM EDT

Yonghoon Lee as Don José and Anita Rachvelishvili as the title character in Bizet's "Carmen."
Taken at the Metropolitan Opera on September 22, 2012.
(Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera )

When an opera like Carmen is a staple of the repertoire and has been recorded and performed a countless number of times the ideal performance is not one in which the singers and musicians do a good job of expressing the music and plot in a new way. Many new or underperformed operas can get away with that simply because of the audiences lack of familiarity with it. However, for Carmen, a perfect performance is a transformative one; one in which the new nuances are uncovered or details unveiled; one in which the viewer, despite having seen or heard the opera hundreds of times, feels that this is the truly the first time that he or she has come to appreciate the work anew.

This ideal performance that I speak of was on exhibit Friday night at the Metropolitan Opera. For me, Richard Eyre's production of the ill-fated gypsy was one of my favorite new productions to have premiered during General manager Peter Gelb's tenure. When I first saw this production three years ago, it was clear that Eyre had done his research on past interpretations of the iconic anti-heroine. Carlos Saura's redefining film on Carmen is present in Eyre's decision to start Act 2 with an unaccompanied flamenco. Francesco Rossi's film starring Placido Domingo and Julia Migenes is also apparent in the symbolic conclusion of the dead bull juxtaposed with the dead Carmen. But the desire to unite a vast range of ideas into the production is not the only fascinating aspect. The sense of balance and proportion that Eyre maintains through four acts is extremely satisfying. I used to be a bit put off by the lack of a dance on stage during the Aragonaise that precedes Act IV because I was used to the Franco Zefirrelli production. However, when I took a step back and looked at the directorial architecture that Eyre constructed I realized why it was not necessary. He places ballets prior to Acts one and three as a reflection of the story about to unfold while he places nothing before Acts 2 and 4. The reason? Act 2 has the Danse Boheme to start while Act 4 has the Toreadors march. Adding extra dance would have been overkill. Ballets are usually an exception for Carmen, but Eyre's choice to include it in this production furthers his all inclusive approach as it brings Carmen back to its roots as a work that originally premiered at the Opera Comique where ballets were the norm, not the exception.

The sets themselves are quite handsome. The first and third sets have a similar structure in their circularity while acts two and three have an awning of sorts on stage left. The two middle acts are likely the most visually stunning with the depiction of the Act 3 Mountain being quite bare, but emphatic in its presentation. Upon first glance, Act 4 may have the least attractive vista of all, but I applaud Eyre's decision to get rid of visual distractions so as to let the final confrontation garner everyone's complete attention. Stage Director Tomer Zvulun maintains most of Eyre's original direction, but keeps it fresh and rewarding. Zvulun does well to remember that Carmen (like Mozart's Don Giovanni) is part comedy and maintains a lightness in the first two acts that is often ignored in favor of more "serious" direction. The children imitate the soldiers and follow orders in what may be some of the more amusing instances. There is always something going on in the scene, but Zvulun is also conscious of the music's power and insight. Aside from a few minor touches at the end of Michaela-Jose duet, Zvulun is content to let it the singers sit in conversation and let the music speak on its own. Carmen's cards aria is another such moment in which Zvulun trusts his singer and Bizet's score to do all the dramatic work. But Zvulun's greatest accomplishment is the dramatic intensity he achieves with his Grade A cast.

Carmen is known worldwide as the symbol of the indomitable woman; the woman free of all sexual repression; the icon of suffrage, etc. Often times this is exactly the interpretation that we will get on stage; a woman so dominating and potent that she has no weakness. Even when facing death all she can do is laugh. But the complexity of Carmen's character is so vast that one must question whether this woman really is as potent as she lets on. After all, she does live in a society dominated by men and Eyre's Spanish Civil War period only emphasizes this. The soldiers are brutal; Jose throws Carmen around and publically humiliates her at whim; and at the end of Act 3, after having been embarrassed in front of her whole tribe by her former lover, no man helps her up or comes to her aid. Instead, Le Dancaire comes over with a massive box of goods and throws it down at her feet almost saying "I told you so. Now get up and carry that." No one cares about this woman. The question that naturally arises will be: Is Carmen searching for someone that respects her so that she doesn't have to continue this loneliness?

I obviously can't speak for her, but Anita Rachvelishvili's complex portrayal of the heroine seemed to pick up on some of these psychological cues. She was seductive and spontaneous in her singing. She sang her opening Habanera with authority in wholesome mezzo soprano voice, all the while dominating the attention of every person on stage. Most Carmens might just stand around and let their voice display this authority (and many are successful), but Rachvelishvili plays and seduces Zuniga throughout the number. Right from the get go we see her control of those around her. The same went for the Seguidilla in the same act. Her fluid phrasing and flexibility only added to the fact that she looked invincible, but also highly unpredictable in the best possible of ways. At the end of the act before she escapes, Bizet gives Carmen a fermata on the word "garde" (an f in the score). Rachvelishvili's irresistible nature was on display yet again as she started off the note softly, but as she sustained it she created a tremendous crescendo that emphasized the character's (and singer's) luxury of unknown weapons in her arsenal. Rachvelishvili added more virtuosity to the proceedings in the following acts as she danced during the Danse Boheme, all the while showing complete control and composure in her voice.

But this was a sensitive Carmen to be sure. During the Act 2 duet, she confesses her love for Don Jose to her comrades. Bizet actually staggers Carmen's declaration in what seems like a moment of bashfulness for the otherwise composed heroine. Right before Carmen says "Je suis Amoreuse!" Bizet has a placed a fermata for a momentary pause, as if Carmen is afraid to make the admission. The brief music with which she declares this love is an ascending line that is marked piano in the score. Rachvielishvili sweetened her dark and meaty voice for this phrase and made Carmen open up her sensitive heart for the very first time. When Don Jose decides to leave her, she responded not with complete fury of a woman scorned, but the disappointment of a betrayed woman. But Rachvelishvili's towering performance and her psychological revelations only got better as the night wore on. Her Act 3 Aria in which she reads the cards and realizes that death is inevitable for her was a lament of a broken woman. It was sung with the most breathtaking of legatos, every phrase melting into the next one as she built toward the high f on the words "Recommence vingt fois." The ensuing repetitions of "La mort" that end the aria were delivered with profound pain and a tinge of regret. The strong Carmen never actually returned after this and in a quiet moment after singing the flashy ensemble "Quant au douanier, c'est notre affaire!," Rachvelishvili took a moment downstage as if she was still haunted by her impending death. The strength was starting to fail. In Act 4, there is a short duet between Escamillo and Carmen that I will honestly concede has been forgettable in most performances I have seen. Both characters sing the same phrase in vocal unison that Carmen never has with any of her prior lovers. Rachvelishvili and baritone Kyle Ketelsen sang with such delicate tones that for the first time it really did seem that Carmen had found her ideal man and when she tells him that she has never loved a man the way she has loved him, it felt not only authentic, but true. This in turn gave us an understanding of why Carmen accepts death at the end of her duet with Jose. Escamillo is that man that has brought her that respect and fulfillment she was seeking. And having found what she is looking for, she can die happily. But nothing would have prepared me for the incredible final duet between her and tenor Yonghoon Lee which was an emotionally exhausting adrenaline rush. At times it seemed as if Rachvelishvilli's might actually give in as she seemed to identify with this pathetic man's devotion to her. But when she saw just how far he was willing to go, she accepted that Jose would not change, he was as brutal and nasty as every other man that preceded him. The iconic moment in which Carmen tosses the ring back at Jose and says "Tien" was delivered with apathy, as if Carmen is telling Jose that he's nothing to her and she cares little for his threats. I look forward to hearing more from the 28 year old Georgian mezzo soprano and especially excited at the news of her Amneris (Aida) this fall in Michigan. Clearly one of the best Carmens in the world, she could very well be the next big Azucena (Il Trovatore) in the feature.

It is often debatable whether Carmen is the story of the tragic heroine or the tragedy of the well mannered Don Jose who descends into complete madness. Rachvelishvili made an argument for the former, but young Korean Tenor Yonghoon Lee also made a strong case for the latter in a tour de force performance that matched his Georgian counterpart from moment to moment. A memorable character is one notated not only by his nuance but how the character traits are introduced and developed during the course of the work. The soldiers of the Franco era (in which production takes place) are paragons of Spanish Machismo and thus rude and violent. Lee gives Don Jose dignity and humility (especially during a gorgeously sung duet with Kate Royal's Michaela), but the violent impulses are there instantly. This isn't an angelic Jose that wouldn't hurt a fly and then becomes a murderer; this is a violent man like every other who simply lets his emotions overwhelm his ability to reason. After confessing the craze that Carmen has created in him in the Act 1 seguidilla, he jumps all over her as a rabid man whose sexual repression has finally been liberated. When Carmen mocks his love, he grabs and throws her down on the seat so that she will listen to him. His refusal of Zuniga's request for him to leave is accentuated with him throwing down a chair. He hurls Carmen to the ground and slaps her in a moment of humiliation in Act 3 and in Act 4... no words can describe the ferocity and desperation of Lee's portrayal of the hopeless man. Just as he is about kill Carmen he leans over her with the knife, ready to bury it in her. He goes down to strike her viciously, but can't bring himself to do it. He was still a man holding onto the hope of retaining her.

Lee brought the same violent intensity into his voice. He has one major advantage: his heavy voice is massive in its volume but maintains a gorgeous brightness that will inevitably remind you of the great Italian tenors of the Golden Age. He is a true dramatic tenor in the utmost sense, but he does not simply use old verismo tricks to express his emotions; his voice has depth. When he wants to, he can sing without the heft and create a gorgeous lightness to it. He started the night off a bit hesitant and shaky but eased himself into the duet with the ever assured Kate Royal. He ended the duet a serene pianissimo that gave Jose sweetness and delicacy. He may be a violent soldier, but he's a romantic, a sweetheart with a noble heart. The flower song was sung with the same lightness and floatiness in his voice that was ever pleasant. Lee didn't just sound pretty in this famous aria. He was clearly suffering, pleading to this goddess that he venerated. The final B flat with which the aria ends was another highlight, ringing beautifully and ending Lee's emotional revelation of Jose as a man of love and tenderness. It was a showstopper and garnered the longest applause of the night. Bizet gives Jose the most glorious of final phrases to end the opera and Lee, while not actually crying, expressed that same level of intense suffering in his singing. He employed a gorgeous piano phrasing and it was wonderful to see him expand such a brief moment to its fullest and most impactful potential. For those hoping for a true squillo tenor, Yonghoon Lee is a singer to look out for. Hopefully, there is a lot more coming from him at the Met in coming seasons.

Kate Royal has not sung at the Met for a few years, but her return was a marked success. She does not possess a huge voice, but it is a pleasant one with sweetness and suavity combined. Her voice in the Act one duet with Lee emanated tenderness and assurance and helped the tenor get through an aforementioned shaky start. Her aria in Act 3 was sung with the requisite frailty and hope of a scared girl in the middle of the mountains. It is a shame that Michaela's role is so brief, as it would have been nice to have spent more time listening to Royal's elegant soprano.

Kyle Ketelsen's Escamillo had the vigor and poise one would expect from this archetype of male strength. But he was also a sensitive one. His declaration of love for Carmen in the final Act was delivered with such gentleness, that you knew that Escamillo was serious about Carmen. It broke your heart to imagine that this man would be without the woman he truly loved in a few short moments.

Keith Miller is a staple in the role of Zuniga and he brought fortitude and confidence to a role that he dominates. It was a pleasure to watch this most chauvinist of characters.

Despite the greatness of the cast, my one major gripe with the evening was with conductor Michele Mariotti who was making his debut. He did his best to stay out of the singers' way, but had a few awkward moments where he did just that. During the Michaela-Jose duet, there is a soft horn accompaniment. This usually goes unnoticed, but Mariotti made it too pronounced to the detriment of the almost transparent singing on stage. In the Act 2 prelude, he had a rather odd ritenuto with the bassoon accompaniment that may have been a deliberate music decision, but seemed to be a moment in which he might have lost communication with his instrumentalist and simply needed to get him back on the downbeat. Otherwise, Mariotti provided a swift and thorough account of the score and was at his best during the climactic confrontation that ends the work.

The Met has already gotten off to a strong start in this new season with a solid production of "L'Eslisir D'Amore" and a strong cast for "Turandot." However, Carmen, with its ideal marriage of cast and production, is already a high point in what looks to be a successful season.

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