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  • S. Lachterman

A No-Sweat Carmen at the Met 2024

Carmen

by Georges Bizet


Directed by Carrie Cracknell

Conductor, Daniele Rustioni

Carmen, Aigul Akhmetshina

Micaëla, Angel Blue

Don José, Piotr Beczała

Escamillo , Kyle Ketelsen

 The Metropolitan Opera and Chorus


A No-Sweat Carmen at the Met 2024

Carmen and Don José: Aigul Akhmetshina and Piotr Beczała in the Met's new Carmen
Carmen and Don José: Aigul Akhmetshina and Piotr Beczała in the Met's new Carmen

My first experience with Carmen was not hearing or seeing it, but reading the scathingly satirical essay on Wagner by Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche waxes rhapsodic and hyperbolic about the beauties, charm, and edifying essence of Bizet’s Carmen:  a work, by  a composer from a country of origin that Wagner loathed. This was Nietzsche’s “goodbye” to his erstwhile idol, and the essay stands as one example of hilarity in German literature (yes, I know, possibly an oxymoron).  One of his phrases stands out:  “[The music] does not sweat.”  Here, we are to understand how naturally and effortlessly Bizet accomplishes so much.

 

In line with Nietzsche's panegyric, the Met’s newest take on Bizet’s masterpiece leaves one wonderstruck at the élan and virtuosity of the musical and theatrical talent on display.  The director, Carrie Cracknell, gives us a new slate of metaphors, fresh from Regietheater to qualify as socially thought-provoking and controversial. Ms. Cracknell effectively turns the Mexican border problem on its head.

 

However, what will make audiences adore their four-hour-with-recitative opera is the wondrous Met debut of Russian-born mezzo, Aigul Akhmetshina, a new star whose magnificently seductive voice, looks, and on-stage athleticism ranks with that of top performers in the last few decades.  Ms. Akhmetshina was born in a Ural mountain village in the Republic of Bashkortostan, and has breezed to renown at 21 in London and later in Berlin with this signature role. Little sweat indeed.

 

She is supported here by two of the finest voices of our time: Piotr Beczałan and Angel Blue.  Mr. Beczała’s powerful delivery was at odds with the feckless character of Don José, whereas Ms. Blue’s anxious reticence was a bit more convincingly communicated in her muted dynamics. 

 

Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen’s Escamillo while cocky and assured was not exaggeratedly macho; less pomp, I suppose, comes with portraying a bronco buster rather than a matador.

 

Yes, there is a rodeo here, not a bullfight.  Being set somewhere in American southwest, near the Mexican border, Carmen and crew work in a munitions factory under military security, hence where Don José is but a corporal.  The “girls” work in the factory, and reminiscent of the opera's original setting, they smoke around the factory campus while lolling about soldiers and some seamy smugglers.  Carmen is, of course, a troublemaker, and is easy prey to the lures of freedom, money, and travel that arms smuggling might offer. 


Don José, infatuated with Carmen, and with little requited to justify the extent of his poor judgement, finds himself in prison for freeing her in detention. Later, he attacks his commanding officer who appears to tickle Carmen’s fickle fancy.  Don José’ joins los bandidos and chooses to tag along with Carmen who gives him less and less regard.  Her sights are set for the bronco buster, Escamillo, who flaunts a sporty Jaguar; Carmen cannot resist shiny objects, but who could deny that José’ is a loser.  His revenge is savage, and far more grisly than Bizet's. José’s emasculation triggers violence disproportionate to Carmen’s rational honesty in ultimately rejecting him.  Thus, Ms. Cracknell has made a point that in matters of the heart, the force of revenge against women can be baseless and horrific.

 

Ms. Akhmetshina’s voice luxuriates in a range with dynamic reserve.  Even in the face of Beczała’s stentorian moments, her velvety dark tone marked her inner strength. 

 

Conductor Daniele Rustioni has a classic touch, preferring clarity to bluster.  He has been the principal conductor of the Orchestra della Toscana as well as the Opéra national de Lyon. 

 

As was the case with all soloists, maestro Rustioni made grand and compelling music without “sweat.”

 

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