Richard Eyre’s Carmen, which just passed its first anniversary at the Met, is a dirty Carmen, both grimier and sluttier than productions past. Carmen is a sexy opera, but it’s not always so lusty: a red streak like a lightning bolt runs down the curtain, which doesn’t rise but spreads open, like a pair of thighs, exposing a yonic crevice in which a sexually charged pas de deux unfolds, apropos of nothing. (Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon.)
The sets are all cracks and tears; the spiraling brick walls that loom over every scene look ripped apart by (a giant’s) hand. The sets also rotate, which allows a surprising, almost scandalously non-traditional final image, but my favorite twist that Eyre brought to the production was this: typically, in Act I, the girls from the cigarette factory descend a staircase from workplace to Seville square, but here they emerge from a hatch in the stage floor. These women, last of whom is the sultry Carmen herself, are not only temptresses of loose virtue—they are literal hellions, crawling out of the devil’s mouth.
In literature, Carmen has become the ultimate embodiment of a particular male anxiety, wielding her sexuality as a weapon, felling men who fall victim to her lures. (But in Eyre’s production, I also saw her sexuality as a modest revenge against the patriarchal factory owners and smugglers who exploit her. Here, with whatever gang she signs up, she may be the Queen Bee of the ladies. But she is never the Queen.) Mezzosoprano Anita Rachvelishvili, making her Met debut this season as Carmen, sings the role with impeccable pitch, but her voice also sports a coarse, husky edge, particularly in its lower registers. Her Carmen is an earthy Carmen, one who can convincingly claim, as she does near her death, that “Carmen…was born free and she will die free.”
By comparison, the soldier she seduces and abandons, Don Jose, is a Romantic pansy, a momma’s boy who sings to her of treasured flowers (Act II’s “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” sang robustly by Roberto Alagna) when clearly she just wants him to fuck her on the floor of Lillas Pastia’s inn. He is a poor fit for the open-skied gypsy lifestyle he gets sucked into, and the sexual humiliation that follows when Carmen leaves him for the toreador, Escamillo. (Paulo Szot, who made a splashy debut last season in The Nose, did not perform as scheduled due to illness.) When Jose stabs Carmen at the end, outside the bullfighting arena, it is less to achieve green-eyed revenge than to reclaim the established sexual power structure. He sticks it to her.
Eyre’s Carmen will be performed again this Saturday night and next Thursday. Click here for more info.