[Met Performance] CID:158810
New production
Carmen {465} Metropolitan Opera House: 01/31/1952.

(Debuts: Tyrone Guthrie, Loren Hightower
Review)


Metropolitan Opera House
January 31, 1952
Benefit sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild
for the production funds
New production


CARMEN {465}
Bizet-Meilhac/L. Halévy

Carmen..................Risë Stevens
Don José................Richard Tucker
Micaela.................Nadine Conner
Escamillo...............Frank Guarrera
Frasquita...............Lucine Amara
Mercédès................Margaret Roggero
Remendado...............Alessio De Paolis
Dancaïre................George Cehanovsky
Zuniga..................Osie Hawkins
Moralès.................Clifford Harvuot
Dance...................Janet Collins
Dance...................Loren Hightower [Debut]

Conductor...............Fritz Reiner

Director................Tyrone Guthrie [Debut]
Designer................Rolf Gérard
Choreographer...........Zachary Solov

Carmen received twenty-three performances this season.


Review of Cecil Smith in Musical America


Bizet's "Carmen" was added to the list of the Metropolitan's restudied and modernized productions on Jan. 31, in a special benefit performance for the Metropolitan Opera Guild's opera production fund. To direct the action, Rudolf Bing imported the London stage director Tyrone Guthrie who, while primarily a craftsman of the legitimate theatre, has staged "Carmen" and two or three other operas for the Sadler's Wells Theatre. Rolf Gerard, by now virtually the staff designer of the Metropolitan, created the settings and costumes. Fritz Reiner conducted the opera for the first time here. The leading members of the cast were Rise Stevens, Nadine Conner, Richard Tucker and Frank Guarrera.

The production was a success in the sense that any stage spectacle can be called a success if it makes a good many of the requisite points effectively. Mr. Guthrie managed to slough off a good many of the dullest conventions of workaday "Carmen" performances, notably the encrusted Iberianisms that have little to do with life in Spain and nothing at all to do with the characters in this particular drama. He handled the mise-en-scène of the first act with skill, eliminating needless members of the crowd, providing careful groupings for the static choral numbers and keeping the action-line clear. He managed, at the expense of a cumbersome scene-change earlier in the act, to make the fourth-act stabbing take place indoors; for the sake of an impact he maintained it could not have outside in the street. He coached the cast in many useful technical devices and required them to behave in a manner that justified the inference that acting was going on all the time. I do not think it really was, but Mr. Guthrie was adroit in teaching the singers to present a reasonable facsimile of it.

If this praise of a "Carmen" production a dozen times better than the one it displaced seems half-hearted, it is because both Mr. Guthrie and Mr. Gerard impressed me more as opportunists than as artists. Their production (taken as a constant) has no real style, in the sense in which a unified and purposeful presentation that achieves everything within the demarcations of a single aesthetic viewpoint has style. It has, in fact, no aesthetic viewpoint whatever; it merely has effects.

In the first act - by far the handsomest piece of scene-painting, a Berard-style representation of white-blue-pink buildings in the hot Spanish sun-the stage direction is hagridden by a wide, high staircase. Everybody has to go up and down all the time and the constant use of levels for the creation of eye-pictures inevitably recalls the Moscow Art Theatre's "Carmencita and the Soldier" a generation ago. But Mr. Guthrie is no Nemirovitch - Dantchenko and Miss Stevens is no Olga Baclanova and the sporadic Muscovisms serve as mere decorative details, thrust upon a prevailingly colloquial acting style that neither justifies nor sustains them. In this act, Miss Stevens' Guthrie-directed Carmen seemed a figure out of a German motion picture of the 1920s. Mr. Tucker, as Don Jose, seemed an American tenor who has recently begun to feel that acting is a serious responsibility and Miss Conner, as Micaëla, was stripped of her braids and her shyness and turned into a musical comedy come on girl. Not only was there no community of style in their acting; there was no clear evidence that Mr. Guthrie had sought to establish any.

The second act, roofed over by an arbor and lighted in so deep a blue that the faces of the principals are scarcely visible, is pure Paris Opéra-Comique. The gypsy scene is a frenzy of activity (which would probably be more effective if it were more skillfully lighted), with more people on top of tables than ever before in the history of "Carmen." Even Escamillo sings his Toreador Song from a table-top, with the men of the ballet straining toward him as though he were Ida Rubinstein in Ravel's "Bolero." There is never a dull moment, but there is never a clear one, either. Once the celebration is over, the staging suddenly becomes just like that of every other "Carmen" production, except that Zuniga, in making his forced entry, pushes an entire breakaway door over on its face. The arrival of the full chorus at the end of the scene seems as fortuitous as ever, but this is the fault of Meilhac and Halévy, the librettists, and not of Mr. Guthrie.

The design of the third act belongs in the pretty-picture genre also exemplified by Mr. Gerard's Nile scene in "Aida." One of the mountain crags looks a bit like the Great Stone Face and the whole setting is basically as unendurable as Lee Simonson's 's rocky piles in the "Ring." Here again Mr. Guthrie's stage direction is in no way imaginative, although it is a happy touch of realism to supply the smugglers with enough trunks and boxes to indicate that their trek has some commercial significance. The Melons! Coupons! duet, sung by Lucine Amara as Frasquita and Margaret Roggero as Mercedes; Miss Stevens' card scene; the final three-way conflict of Carmen, Escamillo and José, all look, apart from superficial changes, much as they always have.

The innovation by which the last act is divided into two scenes would deserve a capital "I" if the City Center had not long since toyed with and discarded this artificial separation. Whatever Mr. Guthrie may feel he gains by moving the final action indoors, the procedure is foredoomed to failure for the music stubbornly refuses to permit a shift. In any case, the joint solution of Mr. Guthrie and Mr. Gerard is wholly unsatisfactory. In the first part of the act the members of the chorus are crowded behind a façade with large, arched windows, looking out at an imagined procession, moving their heads from side to side as it passes and dashing about and crouching to arrange themselves in a series of group art-poses.

Suddenly, with no warrant from the score, the façade is pulled up into the flies and the stage assumes the character of either a battered public room in a third-class hotel or the green room (red as blood) in the bullfight arena. The chorus pours out the back to go goodness knows where, for since the only remaining windows are at stage left it is impossible for the audience to retain any sense of orientation. Carmen is now confronted by José, costumed in artful contrast between his tattered, dirt-smirched outfit and the long-trained, black-and-white dinner gown she apparently wears to bullfights. Since somebody, without the slightest reason to do so, has pulled the curtains across the windows (there were no curtains that could have been pulled across the windows in the façade that disappeared) the room has become as dark as night. The death scene, with Carmen manipulating her train as she cowers around a table, is pure "Tosca" Finally she backs into a corner-although she has acres of space to move about in, and several times passes a door through which she could have run toward some sort of assistance-and José rams the knife square into her middle. The resultant gasp from the audience at the first performance was no doubt Mr. Guthrie's reward of merit, but, to me, few versions of the scene played out in the street have seemed half as contrived.

Miss Stevens obviously prepared her performance with painstaking care. She sang the music far better than she used to, with many sensible inflections and colorations. Her excessive use of a covered tone did not permit her to make strong climaxes anywhere and the quieter moments were the most telling ones. It is impossible to guess how much of her acting represents her own present convictions and how much derives from Mr. Guthrie's instructions. In any event, she did not achieve consistency of characterization. The first-act trollop, a creature out of "Lulu" or the "City of Mahagonny," bore no resemblance to the glamorous figure of the second act, from whose behavior Miss Stevens had by no means eliminated the Hollywood touch. The grande dame of the last act was a little hard to relate to either of the others and most of Miss Stevens' acting in the third act was too muted to be well defined. In any single act, it would be fair to say that she commanded the genre she was representing, but, as with the whole production, it was impossible to make the parts of her characterization add up into a unified whole.

Mr. Tucker was a little stiff, but the candor and honesty of purpose that characterize his acting nowadays induced the audience to believe in him. His singing was capable but rather matter-of-fact and the many cares of a premiere kept his voice from attaining its full ring until the last act. Miss Conner sang prettily with lovely high tones.

The strongest characterization of all was Mr. Guarrera's. In the second act, his Escamillo, dressed in a handsome and formfitting gray suit, was a real celebrity making a personal appearance before his fans and later on he developed the necessary impetuousness and fire without dropping out of character. He negotiated the difficult tessitura of the Toreador Song admirably. Miss Amara and Miss Roggero handled their smaller assignments neatly and George Cehanovsky and Alessio de Paolis joined them and Miss Stevens in a first-class account of the quintet, which Mr. Reiner happily did not take too fast. Osie Hawkins as Zuniga and Clifford Harvuot as Morales sounded extremely uncouth, but contributed effective portraits.

Janet Collins and Loren Hightower were soloists in a brief pas de deux that added to the space problem without adding to the dramatic sense at the beginning of the fourth act. Zachary Solov's second-act choreography, bright and pleasing in its own right, was as much as could be expected in view of ballet dancers' habitual inability to carry their bodies as Spanish dancing requires.

Mr. Reiner does not deserve to be left until last, for his conducting was one of the marvels of our time. His reading of the score was essentially symphonic and he had less concern with surface glitter a Latin conductor might have had. But what prodigies of lyricism, of balance, of natural flow and continuity, of hair-breadth perception of tempos he achieved! His conducting was so good that one never noticed it. After the breathless rat-race "Carmen" has been at the City Center, it was a joyous experience to be able to sit back and grant freely that absolutely everything- was going exactly as it ought to. Even his "Salome" is not superior to this. When Mr. Reiner is at his best, not many can match him.





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