Carmen – Georges Bizet

Mexico City, Opera Nacional de Mexico

September 21 – October 1

The scene is a dusty street in nineteenth-century Seville, filled with lazy soldiers, posturing Latin lovers, self-conscious cigarette girls, singing in French and working much too hard to put it over. “But where is our Carmencita?” the machos complain.

A woman strides on in bare feet, hips swinging but purposeful, on her way to work. Yes, she knows they’re looking at her – the lustful boys, the jealous girls, 4000 expectant paying customers in the auditorium; she takes us all in with a rolling glance, and she couldn’t be less impressed. She’s Carmen, and she has a clock to punch. “When will I love you? My word, I’ve no idea. Perhaps never, perhaps tomorrow … but not today.” The voice is also too busy to work at sensuality. It’s an absurdly beautiful voice, lush low dark velvet, effortless and penetrating. She knows what effect it has on you, what effect her sex has on you. She even has time for a song – because it takes her fancy to sing, not because Georges Bizet has written one for her – and she has time to bewitch a rather prim little boy of a soldier, just because he’s the only person in town who isn’t paying attention to her. But none of this seems to call for effort, any more than it takes effort for a cat to be graceful or a dog to growl. She’s Carmen. She is.

The woman is really Olga Borodina from St. Petersburg, but you could be forgiven for forgetting that. When she sings Carmen, she’s the most famous Gypsy Seville ever produced and the most famous heroine in French opera. She has it down. She sprawls around the stage. She eats her dinner and spits on the floor. A cigarette dangles, malely, from her mouth, and she takes a drag between phrases of lustrous, unmannered song, with a voice that thrills the spine like sudden breeze, almost too robust on a still and windless day.

One word in Act II sets the entire tone: Rene Pape, a preposterously slim and glamorous figure, is singing the Toreador Song, complete with leap to the stage from a tabletop between phrases without missing a beat, and he concludes with “L’amour”. The Gypsy Frasquita, batting eyelashes into his face, responds, “L’amour.” “L’amour,” he repeats, a little lower, and now it’s Mercedes, and the girl is just working too hard, flirting on the other side of him, “L’amour.” “L’amour,” he says, hitting his low note – and then it’s Carmen’s turn, but where is she? Sprawling on the floor, ostentatiously paying no heed to the proceedings, that’s where she is. She sings the lowest, glossiest “L’amour” of all, and she’s not working at all. It’s not a response but a half-bored sigh: Love, oh yes, that – not a stratagem, an apothegm. She’s thinking about it, considering its implications, wondering if sex is worth the trouble. Escamillo is enslaved, and so are we, and Carmen couldn’t care less. That “L’amour” of hers is the role.

It doesn’t hurt Borodina’s exciting interpretation of Carmen that she is surrounded by an excellent cast. Pape’s suave and daring Escamillo, especially when on alternate nights he is singing his fussbudget Rocco in Fidelio, has made him the new matinee idol of opera in New York, just as his King Marke in Tristan last year and his King Heinrich in Lohengrin the year before made all the Wagnerians swoon. Someone give this man a Mephistopheles in Faust! He could sign up the souls of the entire subscriber list.

Roberto Alagna looks rather the eagle scout in Act I, but he scruffs up well. By Act IV, a man ruined by passion, his hair is long and he has five-days’ beard, and he looks rather like Andrea Bocelli. Carmen has perhaps dallied with the scout precisely because he looked too pretty to be aroused, where the Don Jose of a McCracken or a Shicoff would seem dangerous to awaken. Borodina never quite seems uncertain as Alagna indicates he’s out of control, fiercer and nastier than she’d suspected. His Flower Song touches us, but lacks the intensity of a man who knows he’s at breaking point. This may not be wrong – after all, it has no effect on Carmen’s attitude. Alagna makes a fine Jose, and will in time be better.

Norah Amsellem’s Micaela was off-the-rack. It takes some verve to bring this character to life, and she did not have it. Her singing was pleasant and unexciting, and she would add tremendously, since she lacks the personality her three co-stars have in spades, if she did not spend the entire evening staring at the conductor when she is supposed to be singing of love to someone across the stage. The conductor was Bertrand de Billy, and his tempi, though on the quick side, were not so eccentric as to demand such close regard. Borodina, Alagna and Pape never seemed to look at him at all, and they were never once off the note.

Franco Zeffirelli’s elaborate production was designed to give the traditional Met audience what they pay for, and it still does. The blizzard on the Gypsy camp in Act III is the only excess that seems uncalled for, since the Gypsies are in rather skimpy clothes for it. The open-air inn of Act II means that Carmen gets intimate with Don Jose where the whole neighborhood can look on and, presumably, would, but her tabletop vocalises, taken in one easy breath, are so lustrous and alluring, neither Jose nor anyone else gives a damn.

One leaves this Carmen racking the brain for starring roles for Olga Borodina. Cenerentola? The Tsar’s Bride? The Maid of Orleans? Rumor has it the Met has offered her Didon in a new Troyens, but that’s two years away. We want more, and we want it now – not that she gives a damn what we want. “Peut-etre demain….”