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New “Carmen” Fails to Strike Sparks at Met

November 1, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) -- Where in the world was Carmen?

The ideal Carmen, the sultry sexpot, the irresistible, ill-fated Gypsy, was only occasionally on display Thursday night when the Metropolitan Opera premiered a new production of Bizet’s masterpiece.

Instead, we got an uneven interpretation of the title role from the German mezzo Waltraud Meier in a surprisingly bland staging by Franco Zeffirelli.

Meier, a fine artist who has sung memorably in other roles at the Met -- Kundry in ``Parsifal″ and Santuzza in ``Cavalleria Rusticana″ to name two -- looks glamorous enough for the part. It was easy to believe the naive corporal Don Jose, portrayed by tenor Placido Domingo, would fall for her.

Some of her singing was strong -- especially the difficult Card Scene in Act 3, when she foretells her own death. But her lower register, where many of Carmen’s most telling phrases lie, is thinner than it used to be, perhaps the consequence of her moving into Wagnerian soprano roles like Isolde.

More serious, she seemed to lack a firm conception of the character. She aimed for an earthy, sensual Carmen, yet at times came off as merely a frivolous flirt. And her exaggerated displays of emotion -- whether joy, jealousy or fear -- worked against the sense of mystery and stillness that a great Carmen must possess.

To be sure, she wasn’t helped by the production. Zeffirelli offered little in the way of direction beyond one or two provocative poses, such as having her lie flat on her back on a bench while she seduces Don Jose by singing the Seguidille. To be fair, the death scene was unusually gripping and, for once, believable, as she rushed headlong into the knife in Don Jose’s outstretched arm.

Zeffirelli, best known here for his lavish sets for Puccini’s ``La Boheme″ and ``Turandot,″ may have been atoning for past excesses this time. The public square of Act 1 was on the drab side; Act 2′s tavern setting looked strangely like an underground grotto; the smuggler’s hideout in Act 3 was a generic mountain pass that could have come from any number of productions. The plaza outside the bullring for Act 4 was at least colorful and the staging lively.

All in all, it scarcely seemed an improvement on the Peter Hall-John Bury production that was introduced only 10 years ago.

Domingo was a fine leading man, singing ardently though with occasional effort. As his rival, the bullfighter Escamillo, baritone Sergei Leiferkus sounded much as he had a year ago in the role -- energetic and incisive. The best singing of the night came from soprano Angela Gheorghiu as Micaela, Don Jose’s hometown sweetheart who can’t compete with Carmen.

The orchestra under James Levine savored the lovely preludes and frequently whipped up more excitement than was visible on stage.

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