[Met Performance] CID:216090
Carmen {642} Metropolitan Opera House: 09/25/1968.


Metropolitan Opera House
September 25, 1968

CARMEN {642}

Carmen..................Shirley Verrett
Don José................Jon Vickers
Micaela.................Mirella Freni
Escamillo...............Justino Díaz
Frasquita...............Lilian Sukis
Mercédès................Marcia Baldwin
Remendado...............Robert Schmorr
Dancaïre................Robert Goodloe
Zuniga..................Morley Meredith
Moralès.................Russell Christopher

Conductor...............Zubin Mehta

Review of Alan Rich in New York Magazine

"Barrault's 'Carmen' suffers mainly from choristers and dancers who can barely stand on their feet for an evening, let alone move."

I cannot work up much enthusiasm over the Metropolitan's current staging of "Carmen," but I also cannot share the violent antipathy toward it that some of my colleagues have expressed in print since it was introduced last season. I think Jean-Louis Barrault's basic idea was a good, or at least an interesting one. His conception of the opera is anti-natural, with a great deal of crowd movement used as a sort of living backdrop representing the swirl of life around the central action. I don't know whether Bizet's librettists actually had much of this in mind, but the spectacle Barrault has created does present a consistent study in non-involvement, something quite similar, in fact, to that great closing scene of his film "Les Enfants du Paradis," where the distraught Baptiste chases Garance through the swirling Parisian crowd.

Barrault's mistake, however, was in assuming that his staging would be performable by a company saddled with choristers and dancers who can barely remain on their feet for an evening at a time, let alone move with any sort of dynamism or even grace. The problem with his "Carmen" on stage at the Met was epitomized for me in the performance I saw this month (the second one of the season) in which one great klutz of a chorister wandered around at stage right in the last act like a sleepwalking telegraph pole, bumping into people all the while his face reflected little else but bafflement. Throughout the evening, for that matter, I was appalled at the general spectacle of one of the world's most renowned operatic ensembles shuffling and stumbling over an admittedly tricky set and creating one absurd tableau after another. Can't Mr. Bing retire some of these people? Or at least find work for them in other parts of the house?

This was all the sadder because this year's group of principals is far superior to the cast for most of last year's performances. Jon Vickers' Jose reminded us all once again that he is one of the great singing actors of our time. His every phrase is shaped with a marvelous sense of musical line and flow; he knows what words mean and how to color his large but flexible voice to put meanings across. He moves, despite his ungainly build, with great dramatic insight; when someone sings something important to him on the stage, he reacts. He also produced, in the "Flower Song," some unbelievably lovely pianissimo singing, all the more lovely since it is called for in the score but seldom honored by tenors. Mirella Freni's Micaela was of like quality. Her voice, it seems to me, has gotten a great deal bigger of late without losing any of its immensely appealing, human quality. And she, too, can present on the stage an altogether touching and believable whole person. To make Micaela believable is, you must admit, quite an accomplishment.

The Carmen was, and it's about time, Shirley Verrett, and she was superb. Last year we had from Grace Bumbry, a very beautiful Carmen, nicely sung but not very interestingly motivated and from Regina Resnik; a powerful but rather gross impersonation. Verrett's work far outstripped them both. For one thing, it is the best sung Carmen I have heard at the house for as long as I can remember - great vocal beauty, a powerful sense of the phrase, and a gratifying lack of the kind of chest-tone trickery that lesser singers resort to to build up the part. Verrett needed no tricks: her singing was entirely musically mini-sated, and a gorgeous thing to hear. Her acting was of a piece, and she did an especially admirable job in tracing the character's gradually deepening involvement with tragedy. She is inclined early on to overdo one particular bit, a wild and bitchy laughter; otherwise I found her Carmen just about perfect.

Zubin Mehta's conducting I still find as on-the-surface as before. I sense in his work, both in opera and in the concert hall, a fatal lack of a really innate rhythmic sense. Under him, music seldom seems to move at a normal breathing rate, and he seems to try to compensate for this in exactly the wrong way, by a strong overemphasis of the most obvious accentuation. He works well with singers; the balance the other night was seldom less than ideal, but he often gives the impression that he is not yet at home - really at home - in much of the music he performs. Furthermore, although this might be considered beside the point, I find his manners in the pit exceedingly irksome: the long, self-indulgent bow followed by a quick turn and a whoosh into the downbeat. It's all great showbiz, but just a little much.

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