Love and Latent Cruelty: Looking back at the Met Opera’s 1991 “Carmen”

agnesbaltsacarreras

For realzies though, these guys are adorable.

Seemingly out of pure coincidence, various friends of mine have been discussing Carmen recently. I’m writing opera reviews for a music class at school, and though familiar with much of Carmen, I’d never seen it all the way through, so I figured I might as well take this as a sign, and use this opportunity to seek out a recording of the opera, watch it, and write about it for one of my reviews. Then I decided to make it a blog post, because I liked it so why the heck not.

I picked up a DVD of the 1991 Met Opera production, featuring Agnes Baltsa as Carmen, José Carreras as Don José (hah… ), Leona Mitchell as Micaëla, and Samuel Ramey as Escamillo. I was utterly delighted by the opera – I was absolutely blown away by how excellent the music was, and was surprised it wasn’t a product of the early 1900s rather than 1875. Even the text seemed witty and interesting – and that’s based solely on seeing an English translation.

It’s funny how there are so many songs from this opera that have been absorbed into the public consciousness – namely the overture, the habanera and the toreador song (all these links are actually from this production!) – but in my opinion, the music that really makes this opera special isn’t really any one of those three, but elsewhere – one of my favorites being Les tringles des sistres tintaient. The “big three” do get credit from me, though, for being ridiculously catchy and ridiculously fun nevertheless.

Anyway, my job here is not to review the opera itself, but this particular production – I simply couldn’t help but bring it up since I enjoyed it so much – so let’s get started. All in all, the production was extremely impressive and tremendously executed, featured some powerful performances by its talented cast, some excellent singing, an exceptional orchestra, and great overall direction. Of note is the fact that the almost comically animated James Levine gets a consistently robust performance out of the orchestra throughout the entire production. (Not that he doesn’t normally, I’m sure he does, but it was so precise and so “mighty” sounding that it was noticeably excellent.) Even the way the DVD was cut impressed me – the camera angles were effective, the cuts and editing well-timed, creative and informed. One issue I did have though – and I don’t know whether or not this is actually the fault of those who edited the DVD – is that the voices on stage are fairly low down in the overall audio mix. In the DVD at least, the orchestra (and background sound effects, which is weird) are much louder and clearer than the voices of the singers on stage. Had I not had subtitles on (and if I spoke French), I probably wouldn’t have been able to understand what they were saying most of the time – which is a bit of a problem.

LevineBrule

…I’m just saying.

One of the interesting things I have taken away from writing these opera reviews so far is not to trust my first impression of a given actor/actress. Often times a particular performer will seem extremely weak to me in their initial appearance, but as the opera progresses I will eventually change my opinion. This was very true of Baltsa and Mitchell in this case, both of whom I severely disliked at first, but grew to love due to the strength of their performances. It was actually how surprising how strong the performances were – I’m fairly certain some real tears were shed during the course of this recording.

My issue with Mitchell was more minor, and was related directly to something more subtle in her first scene. Granted I was also initially fairly unimpressed with her voice, but what bothered me was that she had an odd habit of cheating out only when she had a line. It made for an awkward and stilted performance in her first scene, which involved a dialogue between her and an officer, and it really took me out of the moment. However, as the opera progressed, Mitchell delivered an emotionally-wrought performance backed by a surprisingly rich and skilled voice. She stayed directly in-character the entire time, and let emotion dictate her performance, in a way that made it all the more powerful. This was evident in the strength of her chemistry with Carreras: She seemed to truly love him; with him she seemed happy, thankful, filled with emotion. And the audience noticed – their first duet resulted in the recording’s first really rowdy reaction from the audience. Her brilliant performance of C’est les contrabandiers le refuge ordinaire in Act III also resulted in similarly vocal audience reaction.

Derp.

However, a much more significant cause of initial aggravation for me was Baltsa’s first scene. During the famous L’amour est un oiseaurebelle (AKA “habanera“) Baltsa consistently looked as though singing was a challenge for her, making various faces that vaguely resembled those of someone trying to push a heavy object. (Seriously, go click the link, it’s from this production.) This is fine, but the habanera is famous for its playfulness and its flirtatiousness, and seeing her make such an effort to sing really took me out of the moment and irked me. To make matters worse, she took many breaths I found questionable, and frankly wasn’t always in key. More generally, I was also was a bit bothered by the fact that she sang it a bit too much “like an opera singer” (that is to say, with tons of rigid vibrato and generally very little shape to the lines; she stayed mostly at mf – f), and not slightly more carefree and playful, as I feel the song almost dictates.

My doubts about her were slightly allayed almost immediately in the following scene, however, when Baltsa made a powerful acting choice in reacting to the entrance of Don José. Simply the way she looked at him suggested a thousand things about Carmen’s character, and about how Baltsa was going to play her – rather than take the hackneyed “love at first sight” approach, she instead dropped her smile and reacted with what can almost be described as a sense of dread – one gets the sense that Carmen is shocked, perhaps even somewhat disturbed, by her own impulsive feelings towards Don José; that she knows her own impulsivity is a flaw, that this has happened before, and she’s not 100% certain how she feels about it happening again. It was a really powerful moment, and made me completely change my opinion of the actress.

Throughout the rest of the opera, I thought her performance improved considerably, and she seemed more and more willing to inject playfulness and emotion into her style of singing. She did, however, retain that weird quirk of looking like she was concentrating on singing rather than acting most of the time, however. If she’s making the choice of playing Carmen as if she’s pissed off at everything at all times, that’s one thing, but I still really don’t think that’s appropriate for the character.

Good… good… I can feel your awe… IT GIVES ME POWER

What was impressive about Samuel Ramey wasn’t so much the strength of his voice – which was very strong; excellent even – but the command of his presence. The moment he stepped onstage he immediately received applause from the audience. And of course, the toreador song was excellent, as it always is, but it was made even more impressive by how engaging his performance was, and, once again, by the strength of the orchestra – it shines particularly well here. The defining moment here wasn’t during the song itself, though, but the moment immediately afterwards – the audience’s reaction was like nothing I’ve heard from an opera performance before. They sounded more like the audience of a rock concert, almost. The camera hung on Ramey, triumphantly posed, the entire time – and I got this magical sense that as this period progressed, his presence on stage was less an embodiment of the character’s pride and arrogance, and increasingly, a reflection of the actor’s own growing sense of glory – he is truly relishing this moment, feeding on the energy from his audience. It truly seemed like a mystical moment. Seriously, watch the scene yourself and try to tell me otherwise!

As for José Carreras – does anything really need to be said? Carreras is the real deal – and it shows in this performance. It is beautifully acted and beautifully sung, if not perhaps a bit over the top in terms of physicality. This is forgivable though – it’s frankly refreshing, compared to Araiza’s dull, flat performance as Tamino in the Magic Flute (the opera I had watched previously), which was actually recorded during the same Met Opera season as this. (My review of that production in a nutshell)

The only real problem I think I have with José Carreras’ performance is that Carreras seems like such a likeable guy that his “descent to the dark side,” as it were, seems… wrong. His decision to set Carmen free in Act I seems totally against everything we know about the character thus far in the opera, and while this could very well be a textual problem, it’s one that could have been assuaged by a stronger acting performance. He just didn’t seem really tempted enough to actually change his mind, so when he does, it seems sudden and wrong.

Georges_bizet

You guys, I’m not saying women are evil… but women are totally evil.

An important thing to note about the text – or at least, my interpretation of it – is that Carmen’s sudden intrusion into José’s life isn’t “making him bad” per se. Like Walter White in Breaking Bad, it really seems more that the situation and increasing desperation are beginning to bring out nastier elements of his personality that were already there, but repressed, rather than changing him directly. I’m willing to accept the idea that José is flawed as a character, but Carreras’ performance seems to suggest José is a totally nice guy that suddenly, by Act III/IV is a huge jerk. I guess I would have liked to see Carreras give José more of an arc.

I know realistically speaking they were probably all over the biblical idea of “the temptation of woman” when this plot was originally conceived, but I just find the other idea (situational chaos causing latent nastiness to suddenly come into the forefront) so much more interesting as a concept, as it presents a look inward, rather than suggest a more “magical” element (Temptation of woman = “evil”).

Some other more general notes: I thought all of the actors shared tremendous chemistry with each other, and enjoyed their performances down to their core, which made me, as a viewer, appreciate it that much more. Also, as a more minor note, I think this production used the children’s chorus effectively – I generally don’t like children’s choruses as they always sort of sound a bit “angelic” and unnatural to me, in a creepy sort of way. But here they made sure the children sang loudly and without real grace, which normally would be a bad thing, but was effective here because it reflected their status as “street urchins” very well.

All in all, I’m truly surprised by how much I enjoyed this, both as an opera and as a performance. There aren’t many things that can make me willingly write for three pages, single-spaced, and yet here we are. (Yeah, this was totally in Word, originally.)

Maybe I should make the overture my new ringtone.

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