Blood is in evidence on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera long before a desperate and rejected Don Jose stabs Carmen to death at the conclusion of Georges Bizet's tale of sex and violence.
In fact, the first image we see in a striking new production by Richard Eyre that premiered on New Year's Eve is a jagged red streak running down the middle of a black curtain. That disturbing image carries over into a narrow opening between sliding panels that move to reveal the sets. And it shows up again on the elegant dress Carmen wears in the final scene.
Eyre, a celebrated British stage director, has updated this "Carmen" by a century to 1930s Seville during the Spanish Civil War, explaining in a program note that he wanted to emphasize the characters' rebellion against a society that was sexually and politically repressive. With help from the Met's turntable, he and set and costume designer Rob Howell create a fluid, unglamorous production that keeps our attention focused on the principals as their tragic story unfolds.
Of course it would be hard to turn one's attention anywhere else when the two leads are performed by singers as compelling as mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca and tenor Roberto Alagna.
Garanca, a tall, strikingly beautiful and fast-rising star from Latvia, sings with alluring tone and captures the gypsy Carmen's sexual swagger and self-confidence. Under Eyre's shrewd direction, she dispenses with much of the tired, traditional stage action associated with the character. For instance, she begins her opening number, the "Habanera," not by slinking around the stage and striking seductive poses, but by washing her shirt, and then her feet, in a bucket of water.
If there is something missing from her portrayal it's her failure to plumb the depths of Carmen's fatalism. The weakest part of her performance comes in the card scene, where Carmen foretells her own death in a vocal line that dips into the lower part of the mezzo range. The words "La mort, toujours la mort" ("Death, always death") should be chilling, and hers are slightly underpowered.
Alagna, the only native French speaker among the principals, is totally at home in the role of Don Jose, creating a searing portrayal of an upright soldier undone by his feelings, first smoldering with passion and later with jealousy and rage. Despite the lingering effects of a cold that afflicted him during the dress rehearsal, most of his singing was exemplary. However, he had difficulty sustaining the high B-flat at the climax of the "Flower Song" and seemed to tire in the final act.
As the bullfighter Escamillo, Don Jose's rival, the Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien could serve as a dictionary illustration for the word "dashing," and his charm and charisma make one forgive the extent to which he has to push his modest voice to fill out the phrases of the "Toreador Song." The excellent Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli brings warmth and sensitive phrasing to her portrayal of Micaela, the girl-next-door whose love for Don Jose never stands a chance against the competition.
There's much to admire in an unusually strong supporting cast, with bass Keith Miller a particular standout at Zuniga. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon contributes an effective flamenco-style number for the tavern scene and also two evocative pas de deux beautifully danced during the preludes to Acts 1 and 3 by Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey.
Much of the evening's success is due to the inspired conducting of Yannick Nezet-Seguin, a young French-Canadian making his Met debut. From the whirlwind pace of the opening measures, Nezet-Seguin displays a rare sureness of touch and an ability to shape the lyrical and dramatic elements of the score into a unified whole.
The final image of Eyre's production is unconventional and bound to be controversial. Instead of bringing the curtain down on Don Jose kneeling beside Carmen's body, he rotates the turntable to take us inside the arena where Escamillo stands in triumph over the bull he has just killed.
Though dramatic, the effect seems a bit heavy-handed. Overall, however, the production is a vast improvement over the bloated, frenetic Franco Zeffirelli "Carmen" that preceded it. It's the second of his productions to be replaced this season by a new look on the Met stage and seems sure to win more favor than the opening night "Tosca" directed by Luc Bondy, which prompted some of the loudest booing in memory. At Thursday's curtain call there were a smattering of the seemingly obligatory boos for the production team, but they were quickly drowned out by applause.
The current cast and conductor give five more performances through Jan. 21. After that another Met debutant, Alain Altinoglu, takes up the baton to lead eight more performances with a shifting cast that includes Olga Borodina, Angela Gheorghiu, Brandon Jovanovich and Jonas Kaufmann.
(This version CORRECTS day to Thursday.)