The Mental Time Machine

The Metropolitan Opera has a new production of Bizet’s Carmen, which premiered in New York City last New Year’s Eve.  I read the review by Anthony Tommasini, the New York Times’ most competent music critic, who understands singing as well as he knows operatic literature.  Mr. Tommasini raved over the production, the work of the English director Richard Eyre, and gave the cast, which includes Elina Garanca in the title role and Roberto Alagna as Don José, high praise as well.  The new Carmen sounds like a real accomplishment altogether.  But for one thing: Mr. Eyre moved the setting of the opera forward, from the Seville of the 1830’s stipulated by Prosper Mérimée, whose novella Bizet’s librettists had adapted for the stage, to that of the 1930’s.

Now Carmen is a work that nobody—director, conductor, or singer—has a right to get wrong, which means, in part, to meddle with, save for a damn good reason.  Putting Micaela (whose music is some of the opera’s most glorious) in the smugglers’ pass with a woolen coat and brown satchel common to women of the lower-middle class in the dreary interwar period is an example of meddlesomeness of the inexcusable sort.  Eyre has explained that Carmen is too familiar to audiences, whom he hoped to shock and awe into a fresh appreciation of the opera by evoking the brutal and repressive...

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