Friday, January 22, 2010

Opera 101: Carmen

Mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca as Carmen with tenor Roberto Alagna as Don Jose 

Carmen by Georges Bizet directed by Richard Eyre, broadcast live from The Metropolitan Opera, New York, January 16, 2010

As a novice in the watching of live opera, I often feel a sense of unease. I'm not an expert in music, I don't have enough knowledge to know if the singers are singing really well or how any given operatic production rates. Those well versed in opera will often compare singers in different roles, current productions to the many they have seen in the past or legendary productions that have passed into operatic history. My experience is limited and based solely on my emotional reactions. I can only say what I like and what I dislike and what appeals to me visually.

Unfortunately, often that's not enough in viewing art. Viewing an art form that you are unfamiliar with is like learning a new language. You can't just say it doesn't make any sense or it has no value because you don't understand what is being said or don't know anything of the culture and history attached to it. I know enough to know that I know very little.

When I was writing and researching my first book Arias, I would go to the library and return with a stack of LPs - yes, that's how long ago it was. I would play them and pour over the libretto for clues as to what I liked and what would work in my book as part of the plot (a working class Italian woman with three kids obsessed with Maria Callas and the fantasy of opera). What I didn't like I discarded and I just went with what appealed to me. Invariably, it was the 19th c. Italian composers Verdi and Puccini with a little bit of Bizet and Leoncavallo thrown in.

When I saw La Traviata for the first time at the COC, when I was twenty or so (I was brought by a friend, long since departed from my life but she gave me this lovely gift), I finally got what made people so passionate about opera. I saw that there was magic here ... how did it work I wondered? Why did it work? Why did it make me emotional and vulnerable? I tried to capture the experience of seeing this in the opening chapter of Arias

So as much as I have enjoyed certain operas - I realize that I may seem disappointingly old school and retro in my taste - I can only speak with limited knowledge of what I see. But I am new to the process of speaking about and thinking about opera as an art form and perhaps you are too. If we approach this together perhaps it will not seem as forbidding as it does to the novice, as it often does to me. Consider this blog Opera 101 for the both of us ...

When I had heard that Angela Gheorghiu was dropping out of Carmen to be replaced by the Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca in the Met production, I was very disappointed because I have a specific image of Carmen in mind as do most people who love Prosper Merimee's original novella. Gheorghiu is a dark haired, fiery Romanian soprano (perfect for the role of the renown gypsy no?) with a wicked tongue and an imperious persona. Just check out what she has been saying about her ex-husband Roberto Alagna, the French tenor, who was to play opposite her as Don Jose in Carmen, a role he has made his own.

Gheorghiu is temperamental and bitchy ... she has been dismissed from roles, gotten into altercations with directors, says disparaging things about her ex. She has a marvelous diva aura and has been physically compared to Callas. My husband fell for her when we saw the Met broadcast of La Bohème with Gheorgiu in the lead role of Mimi. He has a passion for temperamental Europeans, you see.

So, in my mind, Carmen is not a blue-eyed, blonde from Latvia but a fiery Latina or at the very least a Romanian or a Greek diva. But it wasn't just the physical aspect of the role (which can easily be disguised with elaborate wigs and makeup) it's the nature of the singer. Garanca gives off an icy, self-assured princess vibe which irks me a little. My discomfort with Garanca is best expressed here by the anonymous and quite bitchy blogger at which I am beginning to enjoy a great deal:
Carmen needs a bit of dirt under her fingernails, and no, an elegant smudge of brown greasepaint is not the same thing. Her agile, honeyed voice is elegance personified; there's little to suggest an earthy gypsy heart beating beneath.
I have only ever seen Garanca in the role of Cinderella in La Cenerentola, again broadcast live from the Met but, I realize, due to lack of experience and knowledge, I have underestimated her talent. Physically, she did manage to embody, somewhat, the fiery, independent gypsy Carmen with a long train of dark curls and an appropriately insolent attitude. Carmen is indomitable, even when she faces certain death she will not back down, preferring to die (as she foresees in the cards) than lie with a man she no longer loves.

In the Intermezzo review, the reviewer disdained Garanca's Carmen in The Royal Opera production in October of last year by saying that she was "dry-humping everything" on set from "the horse trough to the village idiot like a randy Yorkshire Terrier". Ouch. That production was directed by Francesca Zambello, not Eyre, who is somewhat more restrained in this production.

Setting the story during Franco's Spain in the 1930s almost a hundred years after the original story, Eyre, the director, tries to avoid the usual physical acting cliches about Carmen: the hand on hip, strutting about the stage that has become part of the character Carmen's shtick. Carmen is physical and sensual and this is sometimes taken to the extreme with the legs splayed, hip thrusting gestures that are  employed, here too at times. These are cheap tricks meant to convey a woman of easy virtue. It is much harder to convey the tough, indomitable spirit of the gypsy without these tricks.

Having read the Carmen novella and seen Bizet's opera, I don't see Carmen as the promiscuous whore. Read the original Carmen by Prosper Merimee here - the novella is quite short. She's not a prostitute either. She wants what she wants when she wants it and isn't afraid to use her sexuality to get it. This is why she is so mesmerizing, so powerful an image. And this is likely why she ends up dead at the end of Act 4 because she cannot be contained or controlled by anyone.

Carmen is disdainful and proud and refuses to obey any man. When she leaves Jose for the toreador Escamillo she does so without any contrition - she is bored and wants to move on to the next adventure. Garanca's Carmen and Alagna's Jose are physical and violent - wrestling on the ground and clawing each other in the final death scene where he stabs her for having left him and refusing to return to him.

The stage, while beautifully and authentically designed, is also often "overpopulated" by the cast and too busy as the Intermezzo review mentioned in the Royal Opera production. I sometimes wonder if the director feels we will not be engaged enough with the story and so must fill the stage with dozens of beggar children, soldiers, peasants, gypsies, smugglers etc ... in various scenes. In this story we have passionate and unrequited love, murder, smuggling, bullfights, what more do you need?

The opera was conducted by the young French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin with passion and great enthusiasm and it is thrilling to see the conductor and the musicians performing up close on screen.

This has become a signature role for Alagna and he bestowed the ultimate compliment on Garanca during the intermission interview conducted by Renee Fleming calling her the "most complete Carmen" he has ever sang with - ouch - take that Angela! Still, despite the power of his voice and his considerable acting skills, he leaves me cold. I should be rooting for this French operatic tenor of Sicilian descent but he leaves this MTV generation, visually-oriented spectator unmoved, feeling he lacks the heroic demeanor that I admire in the much older Placido Domingo or Jose Carreras.

This is another challenge that the HD opera-going crowd must face: in certain respects, viewing the performance live in a cinema is a heightened visual experience as you can see the expressions, the gestures, indeed the sweat on their brow on a twenty foot screen in extreme close up. It is a very intimate experience that I don't think can be captured in the same way from the back row of the theatre during a live production.

Conversely, despite a beautiful voice you are very aware of Micaela's (Barbara Frittoli) chinless, middle-aged demeanor and the image of the gentle, naive virgin who loves Jose is soon destroyed. This is sacrilege in opera, of course, because you start to focus on the wrong things: the weight of the soprano, the amount of sweat glistening on the tenor's brow, whether the set looks realistic enough, does the singer physically resemble the character enough. You are moving away from what should be the true focus: the music and the quality of the singing. 

And did I imagine it but was the chemistry between the New Zealander Teddy Tahu Rhodes (who stepped in at the very last minute to play Escamillo due to Mariusz Kwiecien's illness) much more intense than that between Garanca and Alagna? Rhodes was charming and self-effacing in the intermission interview where Frittoli came off as brittle and cold - was it Renee's little bit of extra attention being paid to the handsome Rhodes? We learned that he had been told at 10.00 am that morning that he was to play Escamillo at 1.00 pm matinee. He was amazingly self assured in the role even if it seemed that he might be more comfortable on a surf board rather than in a bullfight.

Some did not like the climax of the opera but I thought it was an intriguing twist. Once Jose has killed Carmen, the turntable stage revolves and turns to reveal the inside of the crowded stadium where Escamillo is standing before the slain bull. "Ah, symbolism." muttered one critic. And yet it is an apt, if heavy handed, metaphor.

Carmen is a force of nature whose life force can only be extinguished by unimaginable, extreme violence.

Post-Script: The Canadian encore presentation will be on March 13, 2010, 1.00 pm

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