This review is for the performance on Friday, Feb. 3, 2017.
When Sophie Koch cancelled all of her performances for Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Metropolitan Opera, attention immediately turned toward Clémentine Margaine, who was set to make her Met debut on Feb. 3. Instead the French mezzo saw her first performance at the history house pushed up two weeks.
Of course with the newfound attention came a great deal of questioning. Koch had been the hot ticket, the world awaiting the French singer’s first-ever crack at a role that she claimed was among the toughest to approach in the repertoire. She was also far more renowned than Margaine, who despite being the Carmen of the moment, was far from a household name.
But Koch’s departure from the production has proven to be a true blessing with Margaine proving why the world has embraced her interpretation as the famed gypsy.
Margaine has taken on the role in Bizet’s iconic work at 15 times since 2013, enough time for her to essentially immerse herself and become Carmen.
And Carmen she is.
Docile and Vicious All At Once
Her interpretation of the character works quite well with Richard Eyre’s fantastic production that parallels the slaughter of a bull with the heroine’s demise. Margaine’s Carmen is a willful being, full of aggression that she can release at any given moment. Her singing echoed this particular feeling with Margaine usually singing passages unusually soft, forcing the listener to really listen carefully to every delicate nuance in her phrasing. Suddenly as if out of nowhere, she would throw in a timely accent into the phrase, breaking the sense of comfort that her singing had accustomed the listener to. This was most noticeable in Carmen’s “Là-bas, tu me suivrai”, Margaine coming all the way downstage, her feet almost touching the edge of the stage, her voice a tiny thread of sound that projected ever so delicately through the theater. By the end of the passage, her voice was a cannon, its massive sound pouring across the theater. Similar phrasing and vocal approach was utilized in the seguidilla and finally the Card aria from Act 3.
This latter section was particularly poignant in the slow tempo, the sense of dread pouring into the weight employed vocally and emotionally in the aria. Each movement toward the low note that climaxes the aria almost like death strokes.
Physically, Margaine matched her vocal ferocity and variety with physical prowess. While some showcase Carmen as a more sensual being, Margaine is straight-up sexual. She had no qualms about flaunting her cleavage at every chance and her suggestive touching of Don Jose and Zuñiga was rather explicit at moments (definitely not PG-13). Her gait expressed a woman with tremendous confidence, her glare vicious and predatory.
Margaine’s character never truly felt that it had any weaknesses toward the sentiments of others, though her stare during Don Jose’s “Flower Song” did betray a sense of tenderness toward the suffering man. During the final love duet with Escamillo, there was also a sense of tenderness as she looked into Kyle Ketelson’s eyes, their voices meshing in the lush melodic figures.
But those were but fleeting moments, the strength of the character seemingly growing in composure as she faced down death in that final scene.
Alongside Rafael Davila as Don Jose, Margaine threw herself about with abandon, letting the audience feel every blow in visceral fashion. Every time she looked into Davila’s eyes throughout the duet, the tension ramped up, the feeling of the unmovable object and unstoppable force colliding at increasing speed. And through this, Margaine retained vocal control, emphasizing Carmen’s control.
Dramatic Realism Over Vocal Perfection
Davila was the complete opposite of control, his vocal delineation of Jose expressing his emotional and moral degradation. During his early vocal passages, particularly during his duet with Michaela, his singing felt rather safe in many passages, the passaggio embraced with gentleness and the middle register sung with focused tone and polished legato. One almost wondered whether he could possibly bring any intensity to the more passionate moments the opera had in store for the tenor.
He put that doubt to rest as the night wore on, his singing sacrificing beauty for drama, his phrasing growing more choppy and the bright tone from the earlier passages growing coarser and heavier. This is by no means a negative critique as it worked wonders on the dramatic portrayal of the work. Where Margaine’s Carmen retained strength and balance vocally, Davila used his voice to perfectly capture Don Jose’s degeneration from a dedicated boy scout into a psychotic murderer. His physicality also helped in expressing this change, his more rigid form at the start slowly losing itself in a more savage, even hunched over form.
The Emotional Counterpoints
What makes “Carmen” such a fascinating work is how everything is so intricately connected. Don Jose and Carmen prove opposites while the other characters prove alter-egos for them as well. Of course, managing these nuanced renditions requires top-notch performances capable of finding the dramatic truth and working alongside their colleagues to truly bring those traits to life.
As Michaela, soprano Janai Brugger provided a fascinating foil to Margaine’s Carmen. Walking about the set with a timid gait that betrayed her naivete and innocence, Brugger sang with as pure a legato line as one might expect from the angelic Michaela. She garnered a tremendous ovation after her Act 3 aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” after letting the audience truly hear the power of her voice. She started the aria with the same delicate manner that had embodied her Michaela in Act 1, but with each passing phrase, as she reached the climactic phrase, her voice grew in strength, but also in its desperation. It was impossible not to feel the sense of dread in these moments.
Kyle Ketelsen was a robust Escamillo, his embodiment of virile masculinity perfectly contrasting Davila’s unraveling Don Jose. Unlike other takes on the character, that show the toreador’s more violent side, this interpretation aligned quite well with Margaine’s poise. Even during his duel with Don Jose, Ketelsen’s adroit posture was emphasized by Don Jose’s lurking pose. He delivered the famed Toreador aria “A votre toast” with vocal elegance and assurance. The ascendance into higher register, which often tips off the pretenders from the contenders in this role, was secure and brilliantly executed.
Nicolas Testé’s performance as Zuñiga also provided a foil to Don Jose, though his evolution going in the same direction. Like Ketelsen’s Escamillo, he had elegance and poise in the early going before turning into a manic drunk, his movement erratic, his voice filled with more accenting that climaxed in the final encounter with Don Jose at the end of Act 2. Of course his re-emergence in the final act was noticeable for his sense of minimization. Watching Escamillo and Carmen exchange love vows, he looked on, his body contorted as if to hide the burning on his face. Unlike Jose, he was scared to act on his passion.
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, led by Asher Fisch, delivered a brisk pace, the overture’s famous theme played with strong momentum and direction. The conductor managed some truly inspired moments during the intermezzo, the delicate music moving at elastic pace along the two dancers onstage. The conductor let hell break loose in the final duet, the sense of tension coming from both the stage and the pit, every blow coming with full blast to give the scene a nervous energy that veered on controlled chaos.
The run has only a few performances remaining, with Margaine leading the way in each and every one. Her reputation in the role is a deserved one as she manages to keep the audience on edge in what is a dramatically fulfilling evening.