Carmen

The Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, January 16.

One thing I’ve come to love about opera is that the female characters generally are players in the action, to a far greater extent than many contemporary works in different media. I suspect the desire to show off the female voice superseded the inclination to shuffle all the women to the background as passive wives and mothers and girlfriends. True, the storylines opera provides those female characters are often ludicrous, even offensive, but at least they are storylines. I’ll take them.

Consider Carmen, Bizet’s masterpiece, first performed in 1875. The gypsy antihero not only drives the action; she’s the titular character—something of a sociopath and a parodic warning against the dangers of unbridled female sexuality but nonetheless an infinitely stronger, more compelling character than José, her pathetic boy toy, or Micaëla, the virgin to her whore. One can’t help but relish Carmen’s vivacity even as one recoils from her cruelty, which is, after all, returned in equal measure by many of those around her.

It’s a great role—iconic for a reason—and in the Met’s new production, Elina Garanca brings Carmen to fresh life. She’s impetuous but self-possessed, seductive but guarded, tenacious but fatalistic, and director Richard Eyre showcases her beautifully in his wonderfully dramatic, gritty-edged new production. Sweeping away caricature, Garanca and Eyre have created a fierce, raw Carmen to remember.

Eyre sets his Carmen in the 1930s, during the Spanish Civil War, to highlight the repression already present in the libretto, but other than that, his Carmen is fairly straightforward, if remarkably well staged, with simple but evocative sets. From the first act, with the soldiers stationed behind barbed wire and the children’s chorus grubby and neglected, the production conveys a battered, harshly subdued environment. Carmen attracts admiration and resentment because she is alluring, yes, but more than that, because she alone is irrepressible, standing straight-backed while everyone else cringes. In her first song, the famous Habanera “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” she doesn’t dance. The movement is all in the music’s percussive rhythms and the sinuous chromatic scale. Carmen merely rinses out her factory apron and washes her legs, and that is seduction enough. In Eyre’s production, with Garanca’s lustrous voice, dancing to the Habanera would be gilding the lily.

The dancing comes in the second act. With choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, Carmen and her fellow gypsies (among them a number of excellent dancers) perform an energetic, foot-stomping, flamenco-inflected number, and here, too, Garanca is captivating. She and Eyre play up the idea that Carmen is a performer, acutely self-conscious and calculating in her self-presentation, and that acting—for Garanca is a talented actor as well as a beautiful vocalist—gives the scene an edge. Moreover, it lends real poignancy to the scene in the third act when Carmen foresees her death when reading her cards. It’s the one moment when she’s not on, not playing or strutting, and her vulnerability there makes her almost sympathetic.

Garanca’s every aria is gorgeous. She doesn’t have the enormous voice of some mezzos, but she has a rich, vibrant tone and an impeccable sense of line and nuance. I wasn’t as fond of Roberto Alagna’s José. He has a graininess in his voice I found distracting, and his high notes sometimes felt a bit tight. But that didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the opera. After all, José is supposed to be kind of pathetic. (Not that Alagna’s singing was pathetic, just not to my taste. And regardless, he sings with great musicality and has a strong stage presence.)

And nothing could take away from the final confrontation between Carmen and José. Eyre’s staging there is dismayingly physical, electric with hate and passion and violence. I can’t read the end of Carmen as tragic—it’s too tawdry, too pitiful—but in this production, it holds an oddly sordid grandeur from the performances alone. The closing tableau of the matador killing the bull, while deliciously melodramatic, isn’t at all necessary. (Plus, it feels like a mixed metaphor. Wouldn’t José be the bull goring Carmen, the matador who didn’t step quickly enough in the end?) This Carmen is strongest when its titular antihero holds center stage.