The Met’s “Worst Ever” Carmen and What To Do About It

carment met photo
“Les tringles des sistres tintaient” –Clémentine Margaine as Carmen in act two of Bizet’s “Carmen.” (The truck tires rotate.) Photo: Nina Wurtzel / Met Opera

Two veteran opera-goers of my acquaintance reacted identically to the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. One called it “the worst thing I’ve seen at the Met in thirty years.” The other declared it the “nadir” of the company’s 141-year history. I had to go.

A classic description of this opera, by Friedrich Nietzsche, extols it as the apex of “Mediterranean” genius, refuting the dark miasma of Germanic art. Nietzsche called it a “return to nature, health, cheerfulness, youth, virtue!” Its music “liberates the spirit.” It “gives wings to thought.” Bizet’s exoticized Spain is sublimely lucid, streaming with sunlight, hot with perfumed indolence. 

Carrie Cracknell’s Met Carmen inflicts black skies, barbed wire, and machine guns. The act one workplace is a guarded facility all of whose female employees wear pink uniforms. The soldiers outside are joined by vagrants (who however sing as if soldiers). The act two gypsy song is danced (sort of) within the confines of the cargo hold of a moving tractor trailer truck. Later in the same act, Carmen’s solo dance of seduction is positioned atop a gasoline pump, a perch so precarious she needs a helping hand from Jose (whom she is defying). The act three set (Bizet’s “wild spot in the mountains”) is the trailer truck overturned, rotating circularly on its side. Dirt and grime are omnipresent. 

According to the program book, Cracknell has transplanted Carmen to “a contemporary American industrial town.” Bizet’s Seville cigarette factory is now an “arms factory.” The outcome is a “contemporary American setting” where “the issues at stake seem powerfully relevant.” Carmen and her co-workers are oppressed in a man’s world.

In short, this is a revisionist reading reconstruing plot and characters. And yet Carmen is an opera, not a play. Whatever one makes of the logic of Cracknell’s strategy, it negates the poetry of the music at every turn.

Regietheater, now ubiquitous on world opera stages, was largely born in Germany after World War II – and no wonder. Heilige Kunst seemed, if not discredited, clouded with questions the loudest of which afflicted the operas of Richard Wagner. My own first exposure came at the Bayreuth festival of 1977 – about which I have written extensively (having been sent by the New York Times). Encountering Gotz Friedrich’s Tannhäuser  (new in 1972), Patrice Chereau’s Ring of the Nibelung (new in 1976), and Harry Kupfer’s The Flying Dutchman (of which I reviewed the premiere), I encountered a consistency of highly rehearsed operatic acting, wedded to a thoroughness of directorial engagement, wholly new to me. Friedrich’s Tannhäuser  was an anti-fascist polemic. Chereau’s method was to assume nothing. He found himself fascinated by the guile of Mime and Alberich, and disgusted by Wotan’s more complex opportunism; he gave him grasping gestures and a scowling face; he dressed him as Wagner.

Kupfer, too, knew what he was doing. I was stunned by his conceit that the main action of the opera was hallucinated by the deranged Senta. I found her character fortified — and also that of Erik, who understood his beloved all too well. The trade-off was a shallower Dutchman, reduced to an idealized figment of imagination. But what most lingered was Kupfer’s ingenious delineation of twin stage-worlds coincident with twin sound-worlds. As I previously wrote in this space: “Kupfer’s handing of musical content was an astounding coup. The opera’s riper, more chromatic stretches were linked to the vigorously depicted fantasy world of Senta’s mind; the squarer, more diatonic parts were framed by the dull walls of Daland’s house, which collapsed outward whenever Senta lost touch. In the big Senta-Dutchman duet, where Wagner’s stylistic lapses are particularly obvious, Kupfer achieved the same effect by alternating between Senta’s fantasy of the Dutchman and the stolid real-life suitor (not in Wagner’s libretto) that her father provided. Never before had I encountered an operatic staging in which the director’s musical literacy was as apparent or pertinent.” 

It was only a matter of time before something similar happened at the Met. The breakthrough moment came in 1979 with a re-imagining of The Flying Dutchman by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. But the breakthrough was careless and superficial. By staging the opera as if dreamt not by the high-strung, headstrong Senta, but by the ancillary Steersman, Ponnelle gained nothing. And the dreamscape itself resembled a high school auditorium at Halloween. 

One may ask – one should ask – what purposes may be served transporting historically conditioned Germanic Regietheater to the US. I can think of two. The first, as at Bayreuth, is an exercise in taking a known opera and casting a different light upon it. But nowadays the majority of American operagoers are newcomers, or relatively so: this rationale is cancelled. The second is to discover new “relevance.” But, consulting my long and checkered operatic memory, I cannot think of a single production that by resituating time and place likely enhanced the engagement of audiences new to the work. 

Earlier this season, the Met revived the most literal, least revised Wagner staging in memory: the Otto Schenk/Gunther Schneider Siemssen Tannhäuser  of 1972. I wrote a series of four blogs opened by thousands of readers. The first read in part: 

“Many points of conjunction between what the ear hears and the eye sees are unforgettably clinched. The action begins with the erotic Venusberg. Wagner asks for ‘a wide grotto which, as it curves towards the right in the background, seems to be prolonged till the eye loses it in the distance. From an opening in the rocks, through which the daylight filters dimly, a greenish waterfall plunges down the whole height of the grotto, foaming wildly over the rocks; out of the basin that receives the water a brook flows to the further background; it there forms into a lake, in which Naiads are seen bathing, while Sirens recline on its banks.’ Schneider-Siemssen wisely doesn’t attempt all of this – but he poetically renders enough of it to get the job done. At the climax of the Venusberg orgy, Wagner makes everything suddenly and cataclysmically vanish, to be replaced by ‘a green valley. . . blue sky, bright sun. In the foreground is a shrine to the Virgin. A Shepherd Boy is blowing his pipe and singing.’ A credulous rendering of this transformation, abetted by Wagner’s musical imagination, proves as breathtaking today as half a century ago.

“At the opera’s close, Tannhäuser expires alongside Elisabeth’s bier, and young pilgrims arrive with a flowered staff betokening his foregiveness. Nowadays, this ending is variously revised. It is considered toxic or tired. But faithfully conjoined with the reprise of the Pilgrims’ Chorus, it remains overwhelming. . . . 

“The arts are today vanishing from the American experience. There is a crisis in cultural memory. How best keep Tannhäuser alive? Flooded with neophytes, the Metropolitan Opera audience is very different from audiences just a few decades ago. What I observed at the end of Tannhäuser was an ambushed audience thrilled and surprised. The Met is cultivating newcomers with new operas that aren’t very good. A more momentous longterm strategy, it seems to me, would be to present great operas staged in a manner that reinforces – rather than challenges or critiques or refreshes – the intended marriage of words and music. For newcomers to Wagner, an updated Tannhäuser would almost certainly possess less ‘relevance’ than Schenk’s 46-year-old staging – if relevance is to be measured in terms of sheer visceral impact.”

In short: there are lessons to be learned from the new Carmen. But it would take a brave artistic initiative, flaunting fashion, to apply them.

All this I pondered while enduring acts one and two last Wednesday night. After that, I discovered that Diego Matheuz’s gestures of hand and baton, in the pit, were more eloquent than anything to be seen onstage. In fact, the musical highlight of the performance was Matheuz’s shaping of Micaela’s aria, and the poetic virtuosity of the accompanying French horns. I am certain I would have enjoyed the Micaela and Don Jose – Ailyn Perez and Michael Fabiano – under other circumstances. 

The Metropolitan Opera’s 2023-24 Carmen deserves to be remembered, and answered, as a seminal lesson in waste – and this at a time when the American arts are starving. 

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