Metropolitan Opera 2023-24 Review: Carmen
Carrie Cracknell’s New Production is a Dull MisfireBy David Salazar
(Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)
Act four of Bizet’s “Carmen.” The orchestra quiets down as hints of the most familiar theme of the opera, the first one audience hears, starts. It builds and builds and builds until it explodes with joy. With ferocity. With audacity.
But on the Met stage, in Carrie Cracknell’s new production we get…
a clown show. A literal group of clowns jumping up and down to amuse a stadium of fans who do the wave in delight. It’s hilarious.
And I literally could not think of a more apt metaphor to use to describe this production as a whole. It’s hard to take something seriously when it doesn’t really know what it is or what it wants to do.
Committing Frank Capra’s Cardinal Sin
To be fair, the production has ideas and some are actually realized. For example, you could say that that clown show is a comment on that very moment in the opera it depicts. After all, Bizet’s most famous music underscores a pageantry of machismo, a series of bullfighters entering the arena ready to massacre an innocent animal for sport. The metaphor itself underlines what happens right after when Don José kills Carmen. So to make mockery of celebrating male dominance right before it leads to tragedy is a solid counterpoint. And at the end of the opera where women stand up from the crowd while men sit to witness the murder of Carmen in the middle of the arena also serves as a payoff for other actions of the opera. In Act three, Frasquita and Mercedes, Carmen’s BFF’s, stop Remendado and Dancaïro from intervening when José is attempting to physically brutalize and humiliate Carmen in front of everyone (emphasis on attempting to because it’s more indicated than actually realized, but more on that later). Meanwhile the rest of the chorus reacts to it, but also just stands around. And we see this time and again throughout the opera where a woman gets attacked by men and no one does anything. The ending suggests that no one, men or women actually cares unless someone dies. And it seems that the production is intent on stripping the opera of its romanticism. To that effect, the factory girls wear clumsy pink uniforms, undermining the opera’s attempt to sexualize them. The big romantic scene between José and Carmen in Act two takes place at the most unromantic locale one can imagine – a gas station. And well, the clown show.
But the problem at large is that these few ideas are overshadowed by a far greater problem – sloppy direction.
Frank Capra once famously said, “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” That can apply to any art form, including opera. And nowhere is that cardinal sin committed more frequently than in Cracknell’s production.
Act one is an unfortunate, static slog. We’re placed at the gates of an arms factory. I honestly had no idea it was an arms factory until I read the program during intermission because the production doesn’t necessarily do a great job of cluing me into the world of the story. We see a massive gate in front of a metallic construction. There are some soldiers parked outside. There’s a massive truck parked inside. Women enter one by one, evading the lecherous looks of onlooking men. Some children show up, for some reason, and stand in front of the gate as they sing their famed chorus. The women come out and stand around during their choral passage. Carmen’s the only character that moves around at all during this Act, if only to prance about and flirt with guys. But otherwise, the production doesn’t really add much else to the story and the action feels like it’s moving at snail’s pace. I never thought I would describe “Carmen” as a “slow-moving” opera, but here we are.
Act two doubles down a bit on this metaphor, in, I suspect, intentionally, but also unintentionally, ironic fashion. The massive truck takes centerstage, its wheels turning and flashing lights strobing on stage (note to the Met’s management: I bet that some people might greatly appreciate some sort of warning in the program or even on stage before the show that there will be flashing lights constantly for the better half of Act two. I personally had a massive headache by the end of it, but I’m sure it might be a bigger issue for others, especially the people who walked out in the middle of the Act). In any case, the truck is quite literally not going anywhere, which is what this entire act feels like. Sure, the choreography at the start presents a fun moment of sisterhood where Carmen’s strength inspires other women to let go of their fear and turn it into a moment of joy and fun (finely undercut by the incessantly flashing lights), but everything else afterward kicks off Cracknell’s inability to maintain any kind of consistent narrative cohesion. The truck hatch opens to allow us to suspend our disbelief that we are actually inside the truck. But somehow, when Escamillo and his crew roll up alongside the truck, the women inside can see outside of it. And apparently, Escamillo can also walk inside of it from the side as well. Then later Carmen ends up at a gas station, where Zuniga also ends up. Even if it’s the only gas station in town, how does he know to look for Carmen at a gas station? But when Zuñiga and José get into it, suddenly they’re on the highway again surrounded by the trucks. Suspension of disbelief is key to any kind of theatrical experience, but for that to work, consistency of setting and space also feels necessary for something like “Carmen;” I could buy in “Ahknaten” or “Satyagraha,” because those operas are operating on more abstract narrative logic, but “Carmen” doesn’t. But I guess we could just excuse it all by “feeling” instead of trying to think too hard about it.
That’s when the dullness sets in.
In each Act, Cracknell employs some specific stage motif that she reuses ad nauseam, stripping it of meaning or impact. During each prelude, we get a shadow play that ends in one way or another with the massive shadow of a woman, presumably Carmen, holding her hand out as if locked behind the curtain, unseen (It’s effective the first few times, but also often feels like outside of this repeated image, the other shadows are illegible for the most part; by Act four the image feels all too predictable and in our face to be anything more than didactic). Meanwhile, In Act one, it’s the overall static nature of everything, except for Carmen. In Act two, it’s the flashing lights… We get it, the truck moves and the lights are like the night sky and the shifting stars. But it’s fine for a couple of minutes. It doesn’t need to be there in your face every time the truck moves forward or backward. And then in Act three and four… the rotating stage.
What is there to say about the overuse of the turntable that hasn’t been said to death before? It’s pretty much a staple of the Peter Gelb-era directors. But I don’t think anyone has managed to overuse it quite as much as Cracknell does. Unfortunately, her first instance of its use is undeniably her best. As Carmen sings her aria “En vain, pour éviter,” she steps all the way downstage, off the turntable, the background thrust into a shadowy darkness. Everything becomes still behind her, except her and the turntable which rotates throughout the passage creating this effect of the world moving on without Carmen, a powerful metaphor for her realization of what is to come. It’s a potent symbolic use of the turntable that is immediately undermined by the fact that every subsequent scene after this employs the rotation again and again and again and again. It rotates when the bandits prepare to go off on their mission. It rotates during Escamillo and José’s duel (they stand around the entire time). It rotates when Micaëla gets caught. It rotates at the start of Act four. It rotates at the end of the opera. It probably rotated a few other times in between as well. The one major connecting factor throughout these rotations is that the actors themselves were often stationary, as if Cracknell, realizing how tedious the static nature of her first Act was, wanted to spice things up by combining that rigidity with a rotating station for some sort of visual variety. Or maybe it connects with the rotating wheels of Act two going nowhere, which might be a metaphor for society at large and its inability to move forward? In any case, it felt like overkill in an attempt to get a point across (if you haven’t noticed, it feels like the production is either trying really hard to get its points across to the audience, or unknowingly hostile toward it, vis-à-vis the flashing lights and mundane repetition). At one point in Act four, the stage rotates to reveal José standing up amidst the crowd. I thought that we were about to get the ultimate payoff – the audience watching the murder of Carmen with the two ex-lovers’ duel set to take place in the center of the arena. In that moment, the audience looking out at the literal audience would present a potent confrontation of how we just sit and watch violence against women for sport. But, the stage continued to rotate and left us instead with the by the run-of-the-mill staging of the fight with the tenor on his knees and the mezzo-soprano standing firm and looking away. Things predictably escalate until Carmen gets bludgeoned by a baseball bat, an admittedly solid link of America’s pastime with, I guess the production suggests, rural America’s other pastime?
Speaking of commenting on society, the production’s lack of specifics and overall general nature creates major issues. It is set in an industrial American town, but as was the case with the confusing setting in Act one, there’s no real clarity on who the bandits are and what their goal is in this modern America. What are they trafficking? What do they want? Or are we supposed to just accept that this is what rural American is all about? It doesn’t feel like Cracknell knows anything outside of serious stereotyping. Ironically, Zachary Wolfe of The New York Times nails it when he says in his review that “As in the Australian director Simon Stone’s 2022 Met staging of Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor,’ the frisson of this ‘Carmen’ is its glib depiction of so-called flyover states — the part of the country that fascinates the operagoing elite as much as Seville fascinated 19th-century Paris. There’s something depressing, even corrosive, in taking such a superficial glance at our fellow Americans, when — especially as an election year dawns — our cultural institutions should be trying to help us understand one another.” If the Met is so intent on modernizing the classics, then it can do so by being more challenging to its actual audience. Give me a “Carmen” set in elite New York society where East Coasters can be confronted with our societal challenges instead of just being entertained by our supposed moral superiority to those people out there in rural America and being allowed to pat ourselves on the back for “being nothing like that.”
Speaking of the Met, one common characteristic of a Peter Gelb-era production of a classic opera that originates at the Met is poor blocking. I won’t harp any longer on the static nature of everything, but will instead remark on the stock gestures everyone seems to jump to when they have nothing else to do. José’s brutality doesn’t really register because, like with everything in this production, we get the same repeated grabbing of the hands or head so many times that the law of diminishing returns sets in rather quickly. It felt like either the team didn’t have enough time to properly block it out and just rushed to the end, or like the rest of the production, the ideas were never fully formed and developed to begin with. Either way, I’ve seen it far too often in the Gelb era with other Met original productions to place the responsibility solely on the creative team. The positive thing is that usually revivals and other performers allow for a development (or, if lucky, change) of the blocking to improve it. But that shouldn’t be the case at the Met. I should be getting the best from the beginning.
But issues with management’s management of schedule and such aside, this lack of specificity in terms of character actions leads to vague character dynamics and characters at large. José and Micaëla awkwardly hug a few times, suggesting more of a friendship than any kind of romance or romantic relationship, thus making Micaëla feel a bit like an afterthought in the opera. José is flat as they come as a character, more like a silly chump who gets caught up in a messy relationship that he has no idea if he wants or not. Escamillo, he’s just there. And Carmen, unfortunately also seems like she’s more a product of the necessity of producing the opera “Carmen” than a compelling being. Aside from a few moments – her dancing to relax her unsettled friends inside the truck, or the aforementioned Act three aria – she feels rather lacking in unique personality. We never really get a hint of who she is outside of the expected. All of this say, this Carmen could have fit into another production, which begs the question of why this one even exists.
Usually with these productions the saving grace are the performers who, despite any incongruence with the staging can often find a way to salvage things musically.
That didn’t quite happen on this night, though certainly not without trying.
At the center of it all was mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina who has performed the work around the world to great acclaim. When I saw her in the ROH’s soulless Barrie Kosky pastiche, she sang with immaculate vocal prowess and coloring that allowed her to give the character some life. And while there’s no doubt about her vocal opulence and potency some four years later, the interpretation in this production didn’t quite have the same range of color palettes. If anything, this one felt a bit more disengaged.
Things got off to a rather rocky start in the Habanera where she seemed to struggle with the descents of the main melody, seemingly cutting the phrase short and skipping the triplet sixteens on “peut apprivoiser.” Something must have been bothering her because she had a similar struggle in the ensuing phrase, a repeat of the same melody, cutting off in the middle of the phrase to take a breath. This went on for a bit throughout the first half of the famed aria, the phrasing coming off as choppy and insecure, with Akhmetshina’s potent voice only appearing in the upper reaches. Things improved dramatically in the second half of the aria, the opening phrases no longer chopped up but delivered in fluid legato. Her voice warmed up and she managed a vibrant F4 at the apex of the aria.
She was solid throughout the Seguidille, her singing particularly articulate rhythmically, every note in its place. However, with the staging having her walking slowly and cautiously along a wall toward José, it all felt very calculated and measured. Even during the ending, after having won over José and allowed her voice to soar, it didn’t quite manage another gear or color. It was strong, potent, but a bit passionless.
Her standout moment was definitely the start of Act two, where there was more bite to “Les Tringles des sistres tintaient,” each word coming through clearly, the articulation that had been so impressive in the Seguidille, moreso here. Adding to that was the fact that this was one of Carmen’s few major character moments, her strength in the midst of the chaos and her ability to inspire, allowing Akhmetshina to use her seduction not for sex, but for comradery. She danced about with abandon, her singing growing more ferocious as the dizzying number escalated toward its climax.
“En vain, pour éviter” was yet another solid vocal moment, the voice darkening, the lines gentle and flowing as Akhmetshina’s Carmen contemplated her destiny. There was a tinge of fear and even regret in some of the softer and gentler vocal moments, and the ascent to the high F was a more restrained forte, giving the moment a greater intimacy.
Akhmetshina also stood strong in her final confrontation with Rafael Dávila’s Don José in Act four in what was arguably the most fully realized moment of musical drama the entire night. She traded vocal blows with him with increasingly heated intensity, shouting out “Tien” as she threw away his ring as if she was spitting out venomous resentment she’d been carrying around inside of her for a long time.
The mezzo was also solid in ensembles, though as is often the case with most Carmen interpreters, she blended into the background during the Quintet and larger choral moments.
It was a strong turn from a very solid and maturing artist and at 27, the Met general manager is already heralding Akhmetshina as the company’s next big star. We’ll see what’s next in store for her in coming years.
Struggling Up High
For the second straight performance, tenor Rafael Dávila was called on to take over as Don José for an ailing Piotr Beczala. And while Dávila was at his best throughout the final act, his vocal ferocity allowed to get unleashed with abandon, the rest of his performance was very much a hit or miss.
First off, he has a beautiful middle voice, his projection clean and solid. And when he has to hit some high notes on closed vocals, there is a solid squillo sound. And when he ascends into his upper range with the softest of piano sound, he also produces some exquisite singing. It’s when he has to open up into the passaggio and upper range that things get sloppy, the sound coming off as pushed, an unfortunate constant throughout the night. High notes throughout his duet with Micaëla proved a distraction and he never quite managed to meld his mix of softer and sturdier singing with soprano Angel Blue, creating a, ironically, mismatched pair throughout the duet that highlighted the similarly awkward relationship between them throughout. Nonetheless, the musical result of this gorgeous musical passage came across as scattered.
As he imploded before Carmen at the climax of the Seguidille, Dávila got off to a solid start with “Carmen, je suis comme un homme ivre,” an aggressive quality emerging. But as the line rose and his voice corresponded, it imploded a bit up top, the vibrato fraying and the high notes (G# and especially the A#) coming across as squeezed.
Then came the famed “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée.” It starts on an F natural before descending, a tricky place for Dávila and one which he didn’t immediately handle well, the note smudged to open the aria. The tenor did find a balance throughout the ensuing passages and his smooth soft singing allowed him to carry through most of the aria elegantly. But as the line ascended into the A flats on “Te revoir Carmen” and “Car tu n’avais eu qu’à paratît,” the vocal instability returned. Still he softened the lines here, each one more gentle than the last, setting himself up for a solid piannissimo ascent to the high B flat. Had he pulled this off, the entire struggle throughout would have provided the aria with a strong payoff and even a potent dramatic effect. But he instead crescendoed to the note and opened up on the B flat, causing himself more issues, the voice noticeably shaky, leaving the listener to wonder if he was going to be able to hold on.
His next big moment came at the close of Act three where confronted with leaving Carmen, José threatens her with never leaving her. It’s a magnificent passage with Bizet giving the tenor not one, but two moments to shine, the key modulating up during “Ah! je te tiens, fille damnée” for added dramatic effect. While Dávila imbued both passages with rawness and aggression, his voice was unable to maintain the strength throughout, seemingly losing momentum and intensity by the end of each passage.
But he did put on arguably the most tremendous display of raw passion in the entire night throughout the Act four duet, his voice growing more jagged as the duet continued. I often look to “Pour la dernière fois” as a key marker of where a tenor has taken the musical shape of the duet, this moment symbolizing not only his vocal apex up to a high B flat on “Démon,” but also José at his wits end and essentially dehumanized. It’s a mix of raw intensity with one final display of vocal control and Dávila, despite all his vocal troubles with high notes throughout the night, managed to find a mix of shouting out “Pour la dernière fois” with an exhilaratingly violent high B. This after he was soft and demure at the start of his pleading during “Carmen, il est temps encore,” his voice growing and fraying a bit more as the duet progressed.
Lost in the Mix
Both Angel Blue and Kyle Ketelsen’s Micaëla and Escamillo, respectively, suffered from the production’s seeming disinterest in them. They both often seemed aimless on stage, searching for where to go in the case of Micaëla (there’s a moment where she has to run to protect Carmen before demanding everyone’s attention that was very awkwardly staged), and going through the motions in the case of Escamillo (the selfies with some of the girls felt like filler in a scene that doesn’t have anything else for him to do but walk around).
But neither singer made their case vocally either. Blue was solid at best, her singing projecting fluidly into the hall, but her phrasing was a bit inconsistent. Lows seemed washed out throughout the duet and her jagged vibrato never found a fluid mix with Dávila’s softer singing. Her big aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” showcased both her vocal highs and lows of the night. She was most vibrant as her voice scaled the highs and ascended into her upper reachers, her G on “peur” blossoming beautifully into “Vous me donnerez du courage.” The same for the B section of the aria where the increased ascents to B flats and eventually high B natural proved cathartic. But it came at a cost of some patchiness throughout, her jagged vibrato coarse in its quality. She attempted the diminuendo molto on the G right before the recapitulation of the A section, but the sound seemed to grow unstable throughout the diminuendo, undercutting the effect.
Meanwhile Ketelsen was solid as Escamillo until he had to ascend into his upper range where his high E’s on “regarde” during “À votre toast” sounded gargled, never quite releasing into the space. It also didn’t help that throughout his big aria he was moving about a rather open space and at one point singing from within a truck that was all the way upstage; during this particular section, his sound didn’t really project, seemingly caught inside the truck (when Akhmetshina sang inside of the truck, it was further downstage, in case you were wondering how her projection was affected). That said, he paired well with Dávila during their duet, the more aggressive approach from both allowing the scene to take some musical flight; if only the staging had them do more than stand around throughout, it might have also been far more potent.
As Frasquita and Mercedes, Sydney Mancasola and Briana Hunter had solid nights. Mancasola’s voice shone brightly during her high note interventions while Hunter’s grittier mezzo proved a strong counterpoint to Akhmetshina’s silkier sound. Micahel Adams and Frederick Ballentine were crisp vocally during the quintet.
In the pit, Daniele Rustioni, a conductor who I personally feel is one of the best in the world in the Italian repertory, had a mixed night in Bizet’s masterpiece. He got off to a solid start in the overture with a propulsive tempo and strong emphasis from the brass and percussion. The woodwinds and brass had a particularly strong night throughout, with some standout moments being the women’s chorus in Act one, the Seguidille, and the opening of Act two. The remainder of the orchestra was also well composed and balanced. What was lacking was the overall flow. I don’t know if this was in reaction to the production or if it was a consequence of the production’s static nature, but it felt like there was always a drive in the music, but never flexibility to allow the singers to shape it. For Akhmetshina’s technical prowess, this precision worked well but almost to mechanical effect. With the other singers, they never quite found their stride. It also probably didn’t help that after every orchestral prelude to each Act, the audience broke out into prolonged applause. Because the pieces themselves were connected to the shadow plays (which felt disconnected from the overall production), this music didn’t feel organic to the overall flow of the performance. For a production to make any music from “Carmen” feel superfluous is quite the achievement.
Ultimately, this “Carmen” is one of the biggest disappointments I have experienced in a long time. Given the work’s preponderance in the repertory (and the economic necessity of playing the hits repeatedly across the lifespan of a production), it feels like new productions of something like “Carmen” should either stray toward a safer but strong approach (alla Richard Eyre) or go for broke with a sharp-cutting new concept that while polarizing, is artistically clear and successful (Willy Decker’s “La Traviata”). I’m sure that Cracknell wanted to go for the latter but somehow got stuck in the muddled middle where her ideas never quite blossomed consistently, the result a remarkably dull and frustrating experience.