Desperately Seeking Carmen

BY ELI JACOBSON | The role of Carmen is in some ways an insuperable obstacle to the performer. Carmen should embody the irresistible allure of the “other,” a sexual appeal that subdues the rational mind and destroys the will.

But what performer can embody that ideal for every single member of the audience? Many fine-looking mezzos — and a few sopranos — with good figures, attractive voices, and acting ability have taken on the part and come up short. Some have gone for the obvious, playing the slut and throwing themselves around the stage in an attempt to be sexy and wild. These Carmens have ended up falling into clichés, looking cheap or ridiculous.

Some channel the slut; others refuse to be playthings.

Others have tried different psychological tacks to suggest a nihilistic alienated creature or a proto-feminist who is angry at men and refuses to be their plaything. They generate lots of discussion, but more often than not miss the mark and fail to convince as Bizet's gypsy.

In a repertory revival this season the Met is again presenting the Carmen of Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, first seen in the role at the Met in 2000 and again in 2004. But on February 19, Borodina was ill and Nancy Fabiola Herrera, a dusky beauty from the Canary Islands, stepped in to replace her.

Having seen several of Borodina's Carmens, I found it intriguing to compare my impressions of her with Herrera's accomplished and attractive, if smaller-scaled, portrayal.

Borodina's voice, for this listener, is Carmen. Three parts deep purple velvet with one part a mix of dark chocolate, cigarette smoke, and bourbon, Borodina's sound immediately establishes Carmen as a woman like no other. She commands your attention from the first note and doesn't let go.

Is she the most beautiful woman I have seen perform the part? No, not even the most charismatic. She is not the best actress either. But she has convinced me more than any other Carmen with the unique qualities of her voice, which give her the confidence of ownership of the role and allow her to eschew cheap dramatics.

Borodina's Carmen at its best reminds me of older French actresses like Jeanne Moreau or Simone Signoret who were not conventional beauties but, through a certain innate self-command and dismissive sexual arrogance, made you come to them on their terms. Aloof but alluring, they controlled their men even if they couldn't control their own fates.

Herrera also possesses a voice of dark, smooth attractiveness and sufficient range for the role. But for a house the size of the Met, in a densely orchestrated score, her voice is at least one size too small. Her Carmen is not larger – but rather smaller – than life.

Herrera is a good-looking woman who moves and dances well, plays her own castanets, and fills the stage with energy. Her Carmen is more of an energetic extrovert than Borodina, tossing her dark flowing tresses, flashing smiles and threatening looks from her black eyes, kicking her shapely legs in the air, and heaving her ample bosom. But what is missing is the musical and dramatic focal point that only a truly commanding and unique voice can provide.

The star female vocalist of the evening was the Micaela, sung by Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova in her first performance of the season. Stoyanova's voice was a fine red wine with a mixture of dark fruity roundness and a refreshing acidic tang that gave her voice Gallic crispness. She had the best French diction of the cast and played Micaela as a young woman of character.

The chaste kiss Micaela bestowed on Don José's forehead from his mother was full of repressed physical passion. Her third act aria was a musical highpoint of the evening and her confrontation with Don José and Carmen revealed not just a good girl but a strong one as well.

Tenor Marcelo Alvarez as Don José revealed himself a singer in transition, whether for good or ill is still in question. Alvarez emerged a decade ago with a smooth and plangently sweet lyric tenor of great natural beauty. In recent years he has been adding more dramatic roles like this one and Manrico in “Il Trovatore.” But Alvarez has gained more weight on his waistline than in his vocal endowment.

Luckily Don José can be sung lyrically, allowing Alvarez at times to showcase his most attractive vocal attributes, such as with his soft piano high note ending the first act duet with Micaela. In other places you could hear a choppy vocal line with dull, slightly pressurized tone. Not a natural actor, Alvarez was awkward in romantic scenes but surprisingly effective in the later scenes of desperation and violence.

Lucio Gallo swaggered about as Escamillo but the voice lacked allure and dash with an incipient wobble and barking, dry tone.

The supporting cast had many points of strength, with the sorely-missed Jeffrey Wells in the role of Zuniga, the velvet-voiced baritone Stephen Gaertner as Morales, and the Mutt and Jeff comedy duo of John Hancock and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as the smugglers Dancaire and Remendado.

The single factor that precluded this revival from descending into routine was the conducting of Emmanuel Villaume, who led a fleet but brightly articulated account of the score.