The Metropolitan Opera says its new production of “Carmen” aims at “reinvigorating the classic story.”
To that end, the director Carrie Cracknell has updated Bizet’s tale of a heedless, headstrong woman and her tragic fate from early-19th-century Spain to present-day America. It seems that the action has been placed somewhere along the border with Mexico, where guns are smuggled in long-haul trucks and rodeo riders (rather than the libretto’s toreadors) are local celebrities.
But this change — intended “to find the relevance to contemporary concerns” in the piece, as Cracknell says in an interview in the program — ends up being little change at all. The bland, lethargic staging, which opened on New Year’s Eve, falls into the pattern of so many of the Met’s updatings: It is, almost gesture for gesture, the same as any extra-stale traditional “Carmen,” just dressed up in cutoff jeans and trucker hats instead of flamenco skirts and castanets.
Don’t be fooled. The only truly impressive aspect of this “Carmen” is its Carmen: the 27-year-old mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina, in turquoise cowboy boots. Though this icon of the repertory is her first leading role at the Met, she seems unfazed by the pressure, singing with easily penetrating evenness and clarity, never needing to push. Her molten yet agile tone can be confiding one moment and extroverted the next, and she moves with magnetic naturalness onstage.
But she suffers from a staging that lacks passion, wit, depth and variety. Cracknell, who is making her Met debut, describes her directorial approach as “looking through a feminist lens.” Perhaps because harshness or darkness in the title character could be perceived as antifeminist — as Carmen somehow provoking her ex-lover to kill her rather than lose her — Akhmetshina’s take on the part is fundamentally sweet and sincere, well-meaning and fun-loving. Even her seductiveness is gently nonthreatening, with the same old hand-on-hip mannerisms as the Carmens of a century ago.
The other leading artists are still more at sea. As the opera’s ingénue, the soprano Angel Blue swings up to excitingly free high notes, but her voice pales a bit and wavers with vibrato lower down — and the production can’t decide whether it wants the standard meek Micaëla or a more assertive woman. As Escamillo, here a selfie-taking rodeo star rather than a bullfighter, the bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen swaggers just enough to remain sympathetic, his sound compactly resonant.
On Sunday, the tenor Rafael Davila had the tough assignment of replacing Piotr Beczala, who was announced as ill just a few hours before curtain, as Don José, the soldier whose mania for Carmen drives him from decent country boy to murderous outlaw. Davila’s sturdy voice grew unreliable as it rose, and in a staging seeking to shift as much moral responsibility as possible onto José, he was, oddly, no more violent or volatile than the norm.
The conductor Daniele Rustioni kept to moderate, well-judged tempos, and the train always stayed firmly on the tracks, including precise work by the chorus — although that came at the expense of ferocity and sensuality. In the preludes to the third and fourth acts were glimpses of a wilder, more expansive and more beautiful vision of Bizet’s score.
Michael Levine’s sets are grandly spare and unevocative. With a high chain-link fence awkwardly shoving much of the action to a thin strip downstage, the first act takes place outside a factory making weapons, rather than the libretto’s cigarettes. Carmen and her merry band make off with a truck that then dominates the second and — crashed and burning on its side — third act. Skeletal, cagelike black bleachers rotate ominously in the fourth.
Modern-day touches abound. Ann Yee’s choreography for a little second-act dance party echoes the finger-pumping-in-the-air style of the crowd at a pop show; the rodeo audience does the wave. Tom Scutt’s costumes are plausible Carhartt-ish evocations of today’s border country denizens; Guy Hoare’s lighting veers wildly, naturalistic to stark to frantic.
Yet the 21st-century-ness is all on the surface, even if Cracknell’s goal is nothing less than a revolution in the opera’s sexual dynamics. “Ending violence against women and reimagining the depiction of violence against women,” she says, “live at the center of the feminist movement.”
But this “Carmen” reimagines nothing. It seems from her interviews that Cracknell wants to emphasize the broader structures of gender and class that make Carmen’s death a societal tragedy instead of an individual crime of passion. But the director struggles to render that distinction legible to the audience.
Sure, a security guard walks by during Carmen and José’s final confrontation and doesn’t intervene. And at the end, the women in the bleachers at the rodeo rise in solidarity while the men remain seated. But it’s all too little, too late for anything approaching a structural critique — or even just interesting, vibrant theater.
Some of Cracknell’s choices, in fact, make the work less provocative. The children’s chorus mimics the changing of the guard in the opera’s opening act; if you’d like, society is training them for militarism. But rather than doubling down, Cracknell has the kids sing directly to the audience, choosing charm over menace.
And it’s wrongheaded to imply, as Cracknell does, that the male chauvinism has been suppressed and the violence romanticized in previous “Carmen” productions. At the Met alone, I remember a performance of an old-fashioned Franco Zeffirelli staging around 2000, a few years after it premiered, in which the deadly final scene really did provide the queasy sensation of spying through a window on a murder, with all the attendant feelings of horror, excitement and shame.
Richard Eyre’s production, which replaced the Zeffirelli in 2009 and set the work at the time of the Spanish Civil War, introduced a pervading sense of grimness, of the characters being thrown together by forces beyond their control. That was a show in which you certainly felt Carmen’s brooding fate more than her stereotypical insouciance or sex appeal. It made the stakes of the opera clearer and darker than they were on Sunday.
And in removing the opera’s exoticizing of Spain as the playground of bandits and Gypsies, Cracknell, who is British, introduces a more insidious exoticizing. As in the Australian director Simon Stone’s 2022 Met staging of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” the frisson of this “Carmen” is its glib depiction of so-called flyover states — the part of the country that fascinates the operagoing elite as much as Seville fascinated 19th-century Paris.
There’s something depressing, even corrosive, in taking such a superficial glance at our fellow Americans, when — especially as an election year dawns — our cultural institutions should be trying to help us understand one another.
Through Jan. 27, and returning in the spring with a new cast, at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.