Heard in highlights or on recording, Garanca’s singing might seem more clinical than sensuous: Her kirsch-sweet voice glides with liquid smoothness from the upper range down to the chesty low tones. Explosions are controlled and mockery calibrated (even if her French sounds a mite Slavic). Onstage, though, musical choices merge with an acting strategy: Garanca delivers a hot performance of a cold character, a Carmen who doesn’t seduce Don José so much as kick him into her world and then carelessly toss him out. She is a virtuoso of indifference.
The Met had planned to give the title role to Angela Gheorghiu, the soon-to-be-ex-wife and once-frequent co-star of Roberto Alagna, this production’s Don José. Gheorghiu will sing two performances this spring, after Alagna has moved on; in the meantime, the tenor seems invigorated by her absence. He has shed some puffiness, and his voice has acquired buoyancy and precision. In the second performance, he caressed the treacherous high B-flat in “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” and glided tenderly from syllable to succulent syllable, contrasting nicely with Garanca’s bite. At times in his career, Alagna’s self-regard has interfered with his ability to project a character. Here, he seems comfortably at home in the role of a man who is dangerously weak, spineless, and unhinged. (His nemesis, the exemplar of uncomplicated manhood, is Escamillo, whom Mariusz Kwiecien endowed with a torero’s physique but an unheroic baritone.)
This Carmen gives hope. Opera, like most of its heroines, is constantly on the verge of expiring. On the Web, an orchestra of mournful aficionados clangs on and on about sickened stars, wan productions, dinky tenors, and ignorant impresarios. The Met attracts especially overwrought laments and even Gelb sometimes worries aloud that all his efforts at rejuvenating the form are needed to keep opera from becoming decrepit. But then 8:07 p.m. strikes, 4,000 audience members adjust their haunches in the Met’s red velvet seats, the chandeliers ascend to their showtime stations near the ceiling, and the music bucks like a bull out of the gate. If this is death, it sure comes dressed in rude and lusty glamour.