Four years into his tenure as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, and midway through the first season he planned from scratch, Peter Gelb turns out to be neither the Destroyer of Worlds that some feared or the savior that others hoped. He’s a pragmatic, flexible executive of the world’s biggest and busiest performing-arts outfit, boldly leading from the middle. The high point of the fall was a searing staging of a modern rarity (From the House of the Dead) that had been thoroughly road-tested in Europe. The low point was an essentially retro Tosca that passed itself off as avant-garde. Somewhere in between sat a fussy and gloomy production of Les contes d’Hoffmann, directed by the Broadway-certified Bartlett Sher. Gelb has deftly piloted the company out of its monumentalist phase, when every production looked as though it had been built to last an eternity. The company’s tacit new motto might be: Even a fiasco’s not forever.
Gelb has learned to be nimble, especially after investing heavily in star singers who must be booked years in advance and then often replaced at the last minute in spasms of panic. He has also, as promised, recruited talent from the worlds of straight theater, visual arts, fashion, and architecture. (The Pritzker Prize–winning Swiss firm of Herzog & De Meuron has teamed up with Miuccia Prada to design the sets and costumes for the upcoming Attila.) He has piped live performances into movie theaters. And he has so far avoided predictability, which matters. Risk-averse opera is the theatrical equivalent of a mule: sturdy but sterile. Even at its worst, Gelb’s Met puts on a show that’s worth expending the energy to hate.
After an erratic fall semester, the company has found its balance with Richard Eyre’s new Carmen. All those thrusting hips and lovable smugglers should make this the easiest of operas to stage, yet a lot of directors still squander its drama, smothering it in local color. At the Met, Peter Hall’s cumbersome 1986 staging gave way to Franco Zeffirelli’s tacky clunker ten years later, which means that this is the first time in nearly a quarter-century that New York audiences can experience a lean, theatrically persuasive version of an essential work. Eyre appears to like the opera—not something to be taken for granted—and he has found a way to reimagine an old favorite without hacking at it in revisionist disdain.
He’s done it by sliding the story forward from Spain just after Goya to the Spain that murdered García Lorca. Civil war rages, and Don José is a member of Franco’s Guardia Civil, which gives the smugglers’ cries of “Freedom!” a specific historical ring. Directors regularly uproot operas from their native time periods and plop them down in the default era of Fascist nastiness—often in a fatuous attempt to wring relevance out of a musty libretto. Eyre manages to intensify the atmosphere of brutishness without undermining the score.
The centerpiece of Rob Howell’s set is a cylinder of broken walls that slide open to reveal a claustrophobic plaza. They evoke a blasted ruin, or a Richard Serra Torqued Ellipse rethought in crumbling brick: tough structures suggesting bleak endurance. You can practically feel the oppressive, moist air of a Seville afternoon in the opening scene, when women in shapeless tunics emerge from a basement sweatshop, and mop their damp skin with water that sloshes from a pump. The grit sits strangely alongside the slinky dance interludes choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, but somehow Eyre makes the juxtaposition work by scraping away a few layers of cliché, leaving just enough so that the opera doesn’t feel grim or bare.
The house lights dim on a black curtain split by an incandescent red stripe—a lightning bolt or a fatal wound—that reappears in the final act as the jag of color in Carmen’s black dress. The conductor, Yannick-Nézet Seguin, unleashes the overture at a ferocious tempo, a reminder that violence is not just a plot device; it’s the engine of Carmen’s life. She is, after all, a brawler, a member of a criminal gang, and a young woman for whom peaceful old age must look improbable and undesirable.
The Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca is the most convincing Carmen in a long time, and not just because of the way she hikes her skirts to stroke a naked thigh. She is too canny to rely exclusively on castanet-clicking shtick, or to jettison it altogether. She retreads the cheesy old porn-star come-ons, and at the same time ferrets out the personality behind the mannerisms. Who is Carmen? To deliciously scandalized Parisian audiences in the 1870s, she merged fantasies of the erotic south and the tawdrier realities of Pigalle. Today, we can read her as a guerrilla in the gender wars, a martyr to personal freedom, a narcissistic virago, or just a self-destructive vamp. Garanca chooses all of the above, mixing stereotypes with a dab of nonchalant cruelty.
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.