Friday, January 15, 2010

Opera Heroines



Composed by Georges Bizet

Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Directed by Richard Eyre

Starring Elina Garanča, Roberto Alagna, Barbara Frittoli, Mariusz Kwiecien

Performances through May 1, 2010

Der Rosenkavalier

Composed by Richard Strauss

Conducted by Edo de Waart
Directed by Nathaniel Merrill

Starring Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Miah Persson/Christine Schäfer

Performances through January 15, 2010

Metropolitan Opera

When soprano Angela Gheorghiu pulled out of her first-ever performances of Carmen in the Met’s new production, there was surely hand-wringing over losing such a glamorous diva. But everyone can breathe easier: her replacement, the sizzling Elina Garanča, may well become the standard-bearer for current Carmens, just as Denyce Graves was in the ‘90s.

Garanča has it all: a silky, superb voice; superior acting chops; smoldering good looks; and the fearlessness that puts great performers above the rest. And the Latvian mezzo zestfully inhabits the role of the untamable gypsy who flits from one man to another like a bee during pollen season. However over-familiar Georges Bizet’s sentimental romantic tragedy has become, Garanča’s brilliance helps us see Carmen unencumbered by its added baggage.

Director Richard Eyre’s smart staging moves the action to the 1930s, but unlike many such updates, it’s not jarring or obviously against the logic of the plot and characters. With set-costume designer Rob Howell, Eyre has fashioned a world grounded in the everyday realities of life in rural Spain, giving the love triangle—which leads to the final tragedy—an added dramatic jolt. Eyre also makes sure to keep the passion boiling, since Carmen is one of the most sensual operas ever written, including the decision to raise the curtain on both acts with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s pas de deux, beautifully danced by Ashley Tuttle and Keith Roberts.

Making his Met debut, French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin begins Bizet’s famous overture at a ridiculously breakneck pace, as if he wants to zip through Carmen in record time. Soon, however, he allows Bizet’s irresistible melodies and faux-Spanish rhythms their breathing room, and the Met Orchestra and Chorus again do indispensible work. In a splendid cast, Roberto Alagna’s nicely-shaded Don Jose balances passion with jealousy, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien’s toreador Escamillo makes a formidable opponent, Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli’s Micaela is elegant and sympathetic in equal measure.

But Carmen is entirely on Garana’s shoulders, and she carries it with ease, even erasing Eyre’s biggest misstep—a final image of Escamillo standing over a dead bull in the ring—with her stylish grace under pressure.

Der Rosenkavalier has an elegant Met production by Nathaniel Merrill, but is pulled along by Richard Strauss’ meltingly lovely melodies. The Met’s top-notch singers also do the composer justice. As the regal Marschallin, Renee Fleming creates a richly-sung portrait of an unhappily married woman who gracefully allows her young lover Octavian pursue his new inamorata, Sophie. Susan Graham, playing the trouser role of Octavian, savvily combines an adult’s poise with the impetuousness of an immature teenager, in her scenes with both the Marschallin and Sophie. And Swedish soprano Miah Persson’s Sophie has the beguilingly sweet voice that Strauss demands for this role; and, when these three women come together for the opera’s climactic trio, it’s musical nirvana.

Conductor Edo de Waart—who might not have the sensitivity to Strauss’s monumental score as James Levine or Georg Solti—nevertheless leads the Met Orchestra in a rhapsodic account of an opera that flies by, despite its four-plus hour running time, its ravishing beauty washing over an appreciative audience.

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