At the Met, a Daring New Production of ‘Carmen’ Takes Flight

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The Metropolitan Opera House is pictured at Lincoln Center in New York July 30, 2014.

NEW YORK – On Sunday, the Metropolitan Opera closed out 2023 with the opening of a new “Carmen,” offering a sold-out house another opportunity to revisit George Bizet’s relentlessly popular 1875 staple of the repertoire, and affording many of them one last chance to complain about the state of opera in the lobby.

I suppose this makes sense. Despite “Carmen” being perfectly capable of taking care of herself, she inspires a conspicuous (and oddly contradictory) impulse among certain opera types to protect her from harm by faithfully maintaining her usual road to ruin.

Making her company debut, British director Carrie Cracknell seeks to renavigate Carmen’s journey with this updated vision. She leaves the opera itself largely intact but airlifts the action from 17th-century Seville to a noncommittal composite of the 21st-century American Southwest – an assertion I’m making despite the director’s reference to the Rust Belt in the program notes.

Thus, the tobacco factory of the original setting is here envisioned as the rear loading docks of a modern cigarette plant, surrounded by chain link fences and monitored by armed security guards (who could just as easily be taken for Border Patrol). Lillas Pastia’s Inn in Act II is shoved into the back of a speeding semitrailer truck flanked by a small fleet of pickups. The flaming wreckage of the truck serves as Act III’s “wild spot in the mountains” – the carousel stage slowly casting its faltering headlights across the house like a searchlight. And the bullfight backdrop of the finale is here reimagined as a rodeo, complete with clowns wearing garish costumes sewn from Texas-esque flags. (The pompous Escamillo, reprised here by the mighty bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, retains his “Toreador” title in the aria, but is recast as a modern-day rodeo star – a pompous cowboy influencer in aviators and chaps.)

On paper (i.e., in program notes), this change of atmosphere opened opportunities for Cracknell to explore themes that include “male unemployment and dispossession” and “gendered harassment and violence toward women.” In practice, it simply provided an alternative universe for the comet that is “Carmen” to streak through.

And mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina made a magnetic and often caustic Carmen, her voice equally suited to silken lightness as leathery depth. The show barely seemed to move before she emerged from behind a blood-red door on a catwalk above the action. Her Act I introduction, that familiar habanera (“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”), was freshened by her humanistic reading, lightened by luminous choral work, and refined through the detail-oriented ear of conductor Daniele Rustioni.

Akhmetshina also gave Carmen a restless physicality that never cut into her singing. Her Act II seduction (“Je vais danser en votre honneur . . . La la la”) found her stretched across a set of gas pumps. Her reverie with her fellow thieves had her dangling from packing straps and dancing atop crates of smuggled weapons. Depending on the actress, Carmen can be a center of gravity or a black hole; Akhmetshina granted enough room for her to be both.

The tenor Piotr Beczała, slated to sing the role of Don José, fell ill shortly before the performance and was covered by the formidable Rafael Davila. (For those who experienced déjà vu, Davila made his own Met debut as Don José in 2017 as a fill-in for Marcelo Álvarez, who called out with a respiratory infection 90 minutes before curtain.)

Davila made a marvelous showing on such short notice, deftly articulating the jilted lover’s arc from dutiful hesitance to blind rage – the unstable “nice guy” foil to Escamillo’s tox-masc alpha. His pleading Act II aria (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetee”) soared until it was sullied by the unscripted marimbas of someone’s iPhone. (The New Year’s Eve audience was remarkably sloppy on this front all night.) Davila also reprised some of the difficulty with props he experienced in 2017, fumbling a handgun and unconvincingly throwing hands in several brawls.

Soprano Angel Blue sang a stunning Micaëla, delivering her memorable Act III aria (“Je dis que rien m’epouvante”) with brilliant warmth and a twinge of subdued terror. Soprano Sydney Mancasola and mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter were also terrific in their respective supporting roles of Frasquita and Mercédès – especially their duet over a deck of doomsaying cards.

(After a pause in February and March, the production resumes in April with conductor Diego Matheuz on the podium and a new cast featuring mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine reprising the title role, tenor Michael Fabiano as Don José, soprano Ailyn Pérez as Micaëla and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green as Escamillo.)

As the music and the singing went, this was a “Carmen” like any (and many) others – though Rustioni drew particular tartness from the flutes and strings, and whipped up a wild, windblown energy across the orchestra that lent the whole score a refreshing vivacity.

On every other front, this was a “Carmen” marked (and, at times, marred) by its many tweaks. The resetting of the story in a contemporary context could as easily be seen as an obscene indulgence of American violence or an equally obscene reflection of an ongoing (and largely unseen) crisis of abusive conditions for migrant laborers. Cracknell appears to favor the latter.

Similarly, extended a little patience and consideration, the many bells and whistles that brighten up this update double as surprisingly effective metaphors for Carmen’s own tormented psyche. Set designer Michael Levine’s towering chain link fences and scaffolded rodeo bleachers bookend the opera (and contain Carmen herself) like a cage. Lighting designer Guy Hoare streaks the stage with bars of white light, a capture of the reckless rush of Carmen’s trajectory – ditto the windowless journey in the back of the truck as it hurtles into uncertainty.

Then again, one needn’t be a purist to feel a touch disappointed by costumes that aspired, above all, to depressing levels of verite – the chorus often materialized as a mob of drab parkas and disposable denim. (Poor Micaëla looked fresh from the clearance bin.) Costume designer Tom Scutt’s debut was high on verisimilitude but intentionally low on thrills – fringy chaps notwithstanding.

Perhaps the clearest vision of Carmen in Cracknell’s staging is also the most abstract. A series of entre-acte projections (by the team of by rocafilm/Roland Harvath) cast massive shadowy visions of Carmen’s world: the bars of a fence, the low glow of a dying flame. A silhouette of Carmen emerges from the blur, her hand pressed against the screen as though the opera itself had her trapped. For all of her talk of flight and freedom, Carmen remains a caged bird.

Essential to Cracknell was an attempt to liberate “Carmen” from its own suffocating male gaze. “They don’t dance for men,” she states plainly in the program of Carmen and her sister smugglers. “They don’t dance because they have to. They dance to feel alive.”

And certainly, this was a “Carmen” that felt alive – a brightness that swiftly darkened in the final act. (So if you have never seen “Carmen,” don’t read this part.)

The Chekhovian appearance of a baseball bat at the rodeo portends Cracknell’s biggest move: a murder with literal and figurative blunt force impact, all the more cruel for its unremarkable realism. When, as the curtain falls and only the women at the rodeo stand to bear witness to her body on the ground, Carmen seems suddenly less like a rebel than a representative, her freedom a fleeting dream, her ultimate flight the only escape.

“Carmen” runs through Feb. 3 (resuming April 12 through May 25) at the Metropolitan Opera: