Finding the Raw and Sensual in ‘Carmen’ and ‘Rusalka’

Anita Rachvelishvili (center) as Carmen at the Met Opera. (Photo by Ken Howard and the Metropolitan Opera)
Anita Rachvelishvili (center) as Carmen at the Met Opera. (Photo by Ken Howard and the Metropolitan Opera)

In the final moments of the third act of Bizet’s Carmen at the Met, the freewheeling gypsy daydreams about her future lover Escamillo as he croons a reprise of his “Toreador Song” from offstage. But then she’s rudely jolted back to reality when the leader of her smuggler gang shoves a heavy bundle of contraband at her. Grimly shouldering the load, she trudges up the mountain pass.

It’s a mildly feminist moment: even in romantic gypsy anarchy, women still have to do the scut work. But at last Tuesday’s performance, this gesture also seemed symbolic of the burden of responsibility placed on Anita Rachvelishvili, who sang the title role: without much help from the rest of the cast, conductor or staging, she had to do all the heavy lifting herself.

The Georgian singer was mostly up to the task. Her dark, throbbing mezzo-soprano, voluptuous hourglass figure, brunette glamour and magnetic stage presence tick off just about every box in the Carmen checklist. Her middle voice is a fascinating smoky color and her low notes have a tangy bite. Since her first performances of this role at the Met in 2011 and 2012, she has apparently revised her approach to top notes, which used to spread and turn flat. Now the high register rings out, true and vibrant.

However, she did tend to shout in big moments, such as the reprise of the seductive “Seguidilla” in the first act, the climax of the portentous “Card Aria” in the third, and especially in her final tussle with the murderous Don José. As she crossed the line between “earthy” and “vulgar,” her voice turned coarse and even showed hints of a wobble.

Even given the vacuum of dramatic energy around her, Ms. Rachvelishvili worked a little too hard. Unlike the “rebellious bird” she sings about in her first act “Habanera” aria, this Carmen isn’t one to ignore her admirers; instead, she’s right in their faces, shouting, “Look at me!”  Her acting, too, could use a little restraint. Showing a little cleavage or crossing one’s legs can be seductive, but Ms. Rachvelishvili’s nonstop breast groping and leg spreading came across like blatant advertising for a clearance sale.

Aleksandrs Antonenko. (Photo by Ken Howard and the Metropolitan Opera)
Aleksandrs Antonenko. (Photo by Ken Howard and the Metropolitan Opera)

On the other hand, I can understand why she might feel like she has to carry the show. As her lover/antagonist Don José, Aleksandrs Antonenko wields one of the world’s great dramatic tenor voices: vibrant, steely and seemingly limitless on top. But in this role he was inconsistent, with high notes frequently flying sharp and the middle register muffled. Tall and hulking, he seemed disconnected and vacant onstage. A Don José with Asperger’s is not an impossible concept, but in so conventional a production, Mr. Antonenko’s lack of affect seemed downright creepy—and not in the right way.

Anita Hartig, as José’s childhood sweetheart, Micaela, enjoyed the biggest vocal success of the evening: the slightly veiled quality of her soprano is both beautiful and fascinating. Her singing is sweet and (in the best sense) uncomplicated. Far less pleasing was baritone Massimo Cavalletti as the matador Escamillo. He bellowed the “Toreador Song,” and his stocky build would make him an easy target for even the most nearsighted bull.

Once past a hell-for-leather overture (just because the Met orchestra can play that fast doesn’t mean they should), conductor Pablo Heras-Casado settled into a relaxed reading of Bizet’s score without any apparent point of view. Similarly noncommittal was Richard Eyre’s staging, like his recent Met Figaro blandly updated to the 1930s. Carmen is a seminal work simultaneously exploiting the “femme fatale” myth and challenging conventional notions of women’s sexuality. At the Met, though, this masterpiece is played as nothing more significant than a telenovela about a pushy broad and a zombie mama’s boy. Hiring (and, worse, rehiring) timid drudges like Mr. Eyre is a big part of what’s wrong with the Met. Opera is going nowhere if the theatrical side of it is presented so diffidently and apologetically, as if to say, “We know you know this is all about a bunch of loud middle-aged people making beautiful noises, but bear with us as we pretend there’s a drama in there somewhere.”

To be sure, it seems to be part of the character of the Met public that they want their opera to be grand—i.e., colorful, ornate, expensive-looking and vivid—and more than a few of the more advanced opera directors shy away from that kind of audience-friendly visual and emotional abundance. This is not the case, though, with Norwegian director Stefan Herheim, whose production style tends toward the baroquely glitzy, with acting performances so over the top as to verge on camp. Even with all that giddy lunacy on stage, though, his shows generally have an extremely firm intellectual basis: they taste great and they’re good for you, too.

A fine introduction to Mr. Herheim’s aesthetic is his staging of Dvorak’s Rusalka, as filmed in live performance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels in 2012 and released last week on DVD and Blu-ray. The director recognizes immediately that this variation on the Little Mermaid fairy tale has its basis in some very important psychology indeed: like Carmen, it’s about a man’s disastrous confusion of the source of his desire with its object.

As generally played, for instance at the Met last season, Rusalka is a gentle fable about a water nymph who longs for human love. In Mr. Herheim’s vision, the nymph is a streetwalker whose seductiveness is nothing more than the longing projected on her by the Vodnik, originally a “water gnome” but here a sexually frustrated middle-aged businessman.

Before the music even starts, the Vodnik (bass Willard White) emerges from a metro station into a city square, accompanied only by street noise sound effects. As he bends over to pick up his dropped door keys, the lighting turns mysterious and smoky, and he seems to recall something from his past. Just then the eerie first chords of the opera are finally heard. What follows is in large part a series of dreamy flashbacks suggesting the events that led the Vodnik to his current unfulfilling marriage.

It’s a truly wild ride, with the set constantly fragmenting and reforming, and even the characters seeming to morph one into the other. Rusalka’s handsome Prince, for instance, is the Vodnik’s distorted memory of himself as a sexually inexperienced youth. The action rockets from the present back to the 1950s (where the Vodnik sees himself as a nerdy kid tormented by mean girls at a soda fountain) and forward to a trippy carnival parade that invades the auditorium of the theater. (At the height of the festivities, glitter cannons are fired from the upper balconies.) Finally, Rusalka, transformed into a Rita Hayworth sex-goddess in auburn wig and spangled gown, tempts the Vodnik to an act of shocking violence in a finale that reverberates with the lucid horror of a nightmare.

This Rusalka leaves you wondering, “What the hell did I just see?” The experience continues long after the curtain comes down (or after you eject the Blu-ray). This is art that haunts in a way that the Met’s pretty, superficial Carmen never can.

Finding the Raw and Sensual in ‘Carmen’ and ‘Rusalka’