A New Star Shines in Yet Another Uninspired ‘Carmen’

Despite the production's flaws, Mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina's performance makes this 2024’s first unmissable opera.

Aigul Akhmetshina in ‘Carmen’ at the Met. Ken Howard/Met Opera

While its current season features well-loved, decades-old productions of La Bohème, Turandot and Tannhäuser, the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve gala previewed the opening of the company’s sixth stab at Carmen since it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966. Notable directors Jean-Louis Barrault, Sirs Peter Hall and Richard Eyre, plus Met favorite Franco Zeffirelli, have each failed to bring the production the lasting success it desires. For its 1025th Carmen this past Sunday night, Peter Gelb turned to Carrie Cracknell, but her much ballyhooed feminist updating of Bizet’s perennial crowd-pleaser about a free-spirited gypsy and her jealous lover emerged flashy and empty.

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In an unspecified southern U.S. locale, Michael Levine’s first act set offered a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire protecting three austere truck bays where feisty factory girls in Tom Scott’s Pepto-Bismol-colored smocks fended off arms smugglers and inattentive guards, including Don José. The huge full-sized truck that hosted Carmen’s banging “Chanson Bohème” in the second act was turned on its side for the third: a striking, if nonsensical, image.

Directing only her second opera, Cracknell didn’t trust herself and often resorted to distracting gimmicks. From the first act finale on, Guy Hoare’s huge sea of flashing neon light strips frequently shifted colors before settling into blinding white for the final fatal confrontation. Escamillo and his entourage drove on in cars that limited stage machinery ordained could only back off the stage—a hilariously awkward exit. For the third act, Cracknell and Levine discovered the Met’s turntable which spun and spun. During her crucial card scene, Carmen stepped off the turntable into darkness while Frasquita and Mercédès kept revolving.

Though the director instructed her cast to smoke cigarettes, flash handguns and take selfies, she made little of her 21st-century milieu. Her principals behaved in much the same way as in previous Met productions. For all its contemporary trappings, Cracknell’s Carmen felt so traditional that it might actually be welcomed by the legion of outraged online commentators who condemned her updates based solely on a few photos and one-minute clips.

‘Carmen’ at the Met. Ken Howard/Met Opera

If Cracknell and her team received polite applause mixed with some scattered boos during their bows, Aigul Akhmetshina, as Carmen, won a unanimously roaring ovation. At twenty-seven, the Russian mezzo who debuted at the Met fourteen months ago as Maddalena in Rigoletto has swiftly become the world’s go-to Carmen. After many weeks of rehearsal, Piotr Beczala, her superstar tenor partner, fell sick and withdrew from the premiere. His place was confidently taken by cover Rafael Davila, who fitted seamlessly into Cracknell’s blandly unchallenging staging

Tall, slim and rocking Daisy Dukes and turquoise cowboy boots, Akhmetshina in her sultry Habanera transfixed all her horny male onlookers except the initially disinterested José.

His uninspired seduction conveyed little of the necessary electric connection between Carmen and Josè. In fact, Akhmetshina’s kittenish Carmen lacked fire and danger—so much so that her defiance of José during their final encounter came from out of nowhere.

Though her characterization remained dramatically lightweight, Akhmetshina proved a vocally ideal Carmen. Her darkly inviting mezzo effortlessly rose from rounded lows to securely shining highs, and she phrased her music with a smoldering, insouciant flair. Hers is no light lyric instrument but a promisingly rich voice that could eventually develop into the big Verdi dramatic mezzo the world craves. But one prays she’ll be cautious: this Carmen was initially planned for Anita Rachvelishvili (who at 39 has been sidelined lately due to an alarming vocal crisis).

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Last-minute José Davila made his Met debut in the same role in 2017 opposite Clémentine Margaine, who succeeds Akhmetshina when this production returns in April. He used his somewhat blunt tenor with skill and sometimes softened it appealingly though José’s haunting Flower Song lacked its usual poignance. While Beczala might have brought greater nuance to her dull concept of the role, Cracknell’s bold pre-opening boast to reimagining José’s downfall failed to materialize on stage,

Though as Carmen’s other love interest, Kyle Ketelsen negotiated Escamillo’s tricky music with a debonair flair, his strutting toreador/rodeo rider felt very familiar. Angel Blue, on the other hand, limned a refreshingly mature and confident Micaëla. If the middle of her luminous soprano sounded less than settled, its soaring high notes gleamed thrillingly in her show-stopping aria.

Baritones Benjamin Taylor and Michael Adams (in his Met debut) made much of Moralès and Le Dancaïre, respectively, with Taylor sounding as if Escamillo might soon be in the cards. As Frasquita, Sydney Mancasola wielded bright top notes that triumphantly crowned the sizzling smuggler’s quintet.

Akhmetshina’s superb vocal achievement was greatly helped by Daniele Rustioni’s robust yet nuanced conducting of the Met orchestra in top form and both the adult and children’s choruses performing splendidly. Bizet’s magnificent score can sound ordinary in routine hands, but Rustioni lavished care on every detail without becoming fussy. Unfortunately, rocafilm/Roland Horvath’s impenetrably blurry projections blunted the impact of each of the exquisite preludes. Perhaps it wasn’t Rustioni’s choice, but the Met still clings to the blunt sung recitatives added by Guiraud after Bizet’s death.

Like Simon Stone’s recent Met Lucia di Lammermoor, Cracknell’s placing her Carmen in an economically impoverished U.S. location served little purpose other than to spotlight tacky hairstyles and crude fashions. Too bad, as local audiences will probably have to live with this unilluminating Carmen for another decade until the Met once again tries to pin down the eternally elusive gypsy. But at least until January 27, Akhmetshina and Rustioni are making it 2024’s first unmissable opera.

Carmen is at the Met through May 25.

A New Star Shines in Yet Another Uninspired ‘Carmen’