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Zeffirelli Loses 'Carmen' in the Overpopulated Scenery


NEW YORK — Franco Zeffirelli has done it again. He has smothered a popular masterpiece in picturesque window dressing. He has reduced a gripping music drama to an empty megamusical display-piece. He has buried his central characters and their plight amid a teeming cast of thousands--well, hundreds. In the vastly superficial process, he has spent a lot of presumably scarce Metropolitan Opera money ($2 million-plus, we are told).

The new production of "Carmen," which had its gala-benefit premiere Thursday at Lincoln Center, is, if nothing else, a triumph of conspicuous consumption. It may tell us little about Bizet's still turbulent score and even less about the psychosexual tragedy of the Merimee novella that inspired the opera. But it does tell us a lot--too much, perhaps--about prevalent cultural pretensions that insist more is more.

None of this should surprise anyone who has been following Zeffirelli's excessive fortunes over the last three decades. But this "Carmen" was supposed to be different. In fact, as originally envisioned, it wasn't even supposed to be Zeffirelli's "Carmen." The Met first hired Giancarlo del Monaco, then Piero Faggioni, then Liliana Cavani to oversee what would no doubt have been some sort of gritty revisionist interpretation. For various reasons, however, each of these directors bit the stagy dust. In the end, the Met opted for yet another easy essay in verismo kitsch.

Oddly, Zeffirelli himself made some revisionist campaign promises. This, he had told Ned Rorem in a New York Times interview, would be a stark and barren "Carmen," a production influenced by the modernist abstractions devised by Wieland Wagner for Bayreuth a half century ago.


At the dressy opening, the overpopulated stage teemed with horses, donkeys, dogs (what, no bull?), hordes of extras, lusty kiddies and an ensemble of Gypsy-pipsy dancers, all in addition to the massive chorus and sadly neglected principals. The scenery, slightly stylized by Zeffirelli's lavish standards if not by anyone else's, exuded old-fashioned picture-postcard opulence. The costumes, contributed by Anna Anni, suggested that poor Sevillian civilians were outfitted by high-fashion designers.

It all looked very pretty in its irrelevant and distracting way--except in Act 3, when the action got lost in shadows behind an obfuscating scrim. Still, Zeffirelli's indulgences overpowered the essential drama at one extreme, or worked stubbornly against it at another.

This was a "Carmen" of contradictions. For all its let's-pretend credibility, it asked choristers to lug on and unfold pieces of scenery during little scenes set within big scenes. For all its literalism, this "Carmen" forgot to show the crucial cigarette factory and brought on the smoky laborers from stage left as well as stage right--suggesting most illogically that there were workplaces in both wings.

Carmen, a glamorous lady who obviously did not frequent the same couturier as her drab colleagues, had to enter anticlimactically from the side, without proper impact or motivation. During the Habanera, the legitimate vamp was upstaged by a corps of irrelevant male Carmens doing their own mock-seductive thing.

Given no door to open for his rude entrance at the end of Act 2, Captain Zuniga had to make nonsensical pronouncements about his arrival (which were conveniently fudged in the "Met Titles" projected on individual seatback screens).

Such details might seem irksome but unimportant in a contemporary production that takes obvious, consistent liberties with narrative logic. But that isn't the point here. Zeffirelli's aesthetic is predicated on realism, and realism does not bend that conveniently.

If Zeffirelli had any new ideas about the key figures, he managed to keep his inspirations a secret. The central participants seemed left pretty much to their own uneven devices. In the case of Waltraud Meier, a splendid Kundry and an incendiary 20th century Isolde undertaking her first big-time Carmen, the devices were all too prim and wan.

Complicating matters, this slender, slender-toned Nordic heroine (a heroine content to have someone in the pit play the castanets for her) encountered severe pitch problems under pressure. There may be an interesting, unconventional Carmen in her, but few hints emerged on this occasion.

Placido Domingo, who reheated his staunch, standard-brand Jose, earned admiration for attempting a pianissimo B-flat at the crest of the "Flower Song," even though his technique did not match his good intentions. Like all Micaelas, Angela Gheorghiu simpered sweetly. As the should-be swashbuckling Escamillo, the normally imposing Sergei Leiferkus struck dutiful matador poses without apparent embarrassment and emitted some nasal tones that came perilously close to braying.

James Levine, who reverted to the time-dishonored, slightly abridged recitative version of the score yet sanctioned a few disruptive interpolations of dialogue, sustained brio and poise against the odds in the marvelously staffed pit. Too bad "Carmen" isn't an orchestral opera first and foremost.

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