Carmen was the first opera I knew and loved, before its tunes became too familiar and the eager young self dismissed it as unsophisticated. Last night, in the Zeffirelli production first staged at the Met in 1996, I began to rediscover its musical as well as dramatic intelligence. My memory of Don Jose, formed upon the Migenes-Domingo film version many years ago, before I could read its English subtitles, had been as the hot-blooded paramour Carmen ultimately loved just as much. But Bizet’s opera offers no such certainty: Don Jose seems all but marginal to the tale, in fact, albeit constantly pushing himself back into it, sacrificing everything for the centrality in Carmen’s life he will never have—precisely because he has sacrificed and thereby compromised his role—whereas Escamillo the toreador (superbly sung by Ildar Abdrazakov!) is all role and no compromise. Mistaking a life in shambles for persistence of love, Don Jose can assert his existence only through the decisive act of murder—a childish pointing of the finger, a tantrum that could not go the extra step of sublimation. Carmen does prize freedom above all, not from men but to love, even as audiences might wish to believe she sings against her own heart—that somehow this time it’s different, that we’re wiser to her emotions than she can be. Love is easy, she sings: as soon as you think you’ve lost it, there it is again. This openness—radically vital and for her vitally sustainable—is a serious stance, as haunting as Isolde’s monomaniacal steadfastness, and puts the audience to shame for daring less.

Cigarette girls: fascinating; a whole song praising the pleasures of the cigarette! (Richard Klein of course notes this.) Carmen is part of the underground economy even as she has worked, too, in a legitimate factory….

Irina Mishura as Carmen could have used more sass and sauciness. Her voice was almost too rich to suggest impetuosity. But sets were stunning, switching between civic spaces—the Seville square with its corner café, market, spare yet gorgeous Cezanne-esque backdrop of rooftops—and the mountain clearing and grotto of Carmen and her company—criminal hideout, palatially wild. Lots of pageantry, especially in the final Act, with assorted potentates striding and sometimes horseback-riding across stage.

Yet: one feels that French is a sub-optimal language for opera.

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