BWW Review: Two Nights in Seville, Part 2 - a New Gypsy in Town for Met's CARMEN

BWW Review: Two Nights in Seville, Part 2 - a New Gypsy in Town for Met's CARMEN

BWW Review: Two Nights in Seville, Part 2 - a New Gypsy in Town for Met's CARMEN
Clementine Margaine (center) as Carmen.
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

It didn't strike me until the lights were going down for the start of CARMEN last Thursday that this was the second night in a row that Met audiences were being transported to the same town in sunny Spain. Truth be told, "sunny" is hardly an adjective I'd hardly use to describe Bizet's tragedy in the shadow of the bullring, while it's just about right for dizzy events of Rossini's charmer, IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, which I'd heard the night before.

The first night of the Met's CARMEN revival was tempestuous-and not in a good way. But as Shakespeare said, all's well that ends well.

It's that time of the year again, when the flu season gives artistic administrators big headaches, trying to fill in the blanks when a headliner calls in sick. CARMEN's been a particular headache, with mezzo Sophie Koch out of action in the title role after rehearsals had started and dropping out of her entire run. Luckily, Clementine Margaine--scheduled for the second cast--was on hand to step into her flamenco shoes for the first night--and all to follow--doing a bang-up job. (And she's French, like Koch, to boot, bringing the Gallic flavor that has been missing from the Met's gypsy for quite some time.)

As the tenor sings, "Carmen, je t'aime" ("Carmen, I love you") and that was how I felt about Margaine's performance. She understandably tiptoed into the first bit of the role, but soon had all the sparks she needed to bring this role to life. Her sultry voice and firm grip on the character made her a pleasure to hear, notably in the famed "Habanera" and "Seguidilla," and she was game for all the dance moves required in the second act's scene at Lillas Pastia's tavern. I'm sure she'll grow further into the role as the run goes on.

Still, on the first night, with cast changes in key roles, the overall performance didn't quite gel, in Sir Richard Eyre's production with Rob Howell's well-designed sets and costumes, and Peter Mumford's lighting. The performers sometimes felt like they were on a blind date. (I'm not sure what more the revival's stage direction, Jonathan Loy, could have done under the circumstances.)

That first night was also a no-show for tenor Marcelo Alvarez, scheduled for Carmen's slightly deranged lover, Don Jose; it must have been pretty late in the game, because there wasn't even time to print one of those "At this performance..." slips for the program. (An announcement was made before the overture.) Rafael Davila stepped in--likely with a recommendation from Met mainstay Placido Domingo, who conducted him in MANON LESCAUT in Valencia--and although he gave a game performance, I can't say that he matched Margaine. He has a big, burly voice, which can work in some parts of this opera, but he lacked nuance and his volume was tiring by end. As a last-minute addition and little time to know his Carmen, this Jose's great love song, "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée (The Flower Song, "The flower you threw to me")," didn't have the impact it needed.

Soprano Maria Agresta was less of a shrinking violet, and with a riper sound, than the usual Michaela--Jose's love, the small-town girl who shows up in Seville with a message from his mother--with a take on the role that seemed somewhat too independent to put up with Jose's shenanigans. I heard her Met debut as Mimi in LA BOHEME and I think it was a better fit for her, though, vocally, she did a nice job here with "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante," as she prayed for courage before Jose and the smugglers showed up in Act III.

Despite having one of the score's great moments ("The Toreador Song," "Votre toast...je peux vous le rendre"), the role of Escamillo is not necessarily one of the most grateful roles for a bass. You have to be ready to make your entrance, open your mouth and raise the roof, with no time to warm up--a test no matter what you've been doing backstage. Kyle Ketelsen strutted and preened as befit a star of the bullring, but could have used a bit more time for his voice to open up.

I like baritone Nicolas Teste as the brutish Lieutenant Zuniga, while soprano Danielle Talamantes and mezzo Shirin Eskandani (making her debut) did well as Carmen's sidekicks, Frasquita and Mercedes, respectively. Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey were the sensuous solo dancers, in Christopher Wheeldon's choreography, even though their second number didn't quite make sense dramatically.

Despite the somewhat chaotic doings on stage--as the cast did the equivalent of "Getting to know you"--conductor Asher Fisch led a smart, surging performance with the Met orchestra and the chorus, which has lots to do in this opera, was in good repair, under chorus master Donald Palumbo.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.