Murder Most Unromantic in a New ‘Carmen’ at the Metropolitan Opera

A close observer might have noticed the flicker of menace that passed between the man and the woman: how his hand, which had just cupped her cheek, slid down and opened to encircle her throat. But though her body grew still for a moment, it didn’t show fear. Instead, she seemed to give as good as she got during their heated exchange of words that occurs in full view of a crowd — a crowd that appeared to freeze when he grabbed her arm and roughly shoved her, sending her flying to the ground.

Domestic abuse is often considered a private problem that happens behind closed doors. On New Year’s Eve, it will take center stage at the Metropolitan Opera in a new production of Bizet’s “Carmen,” conducted by Daniele Rustioni. The opening run stars the Russian mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina in the title role and the tenor Piotr Beczala as José, the soldier whose obsession with Carmen culminates in her murder. The modern-dress production, set near an unspecified border in America, includes scenes like this moment from Act II, rehearsed on a recent afternoon, that aim to shed light on society’s complicity in violence against women.

The production’s director, Carrie Cracknell, said she wanted to question the view that Carmen’s death at the hands of José is a crime of passion, the result of her corrupting and discarding an innocent soldier. “We talk about domestic violence as these things which we understand to be a secret between a man and a woman,” she said. In the case of Carmen’s death, she added, “we’re trying to frame that as an outcome that feels as much about gender as about two individuals.”

Akhmetshina rehearsing. The production is set not in Andalusia but at an unspecified American border.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The British Cracknell, 43, has made a name for herself in theater with acclaimed productions of works like Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and Euripides’ “Medea” — stories, she said, “about women who find themselves caged by patriarchal structures and cause chaos as a way of dealing with it.” With “Carmen,” her Met debut, she takes on a reliable box office hit, one whose title character — with her teasing, chromatic melodies — came to define operatic sex appeal for generations.

But these days the opera also leaves many uncomfortable with its French colonialist fantasies played out in an Andalusia peopled by licentious women and lawless smugglers, a place that risks luring a good man away from duty, family and the churchgoing girl his mother wants him to marry. When José stabs Carmen at the same moment that her new lover triumphs inside the bullfighting arena, it feels as if Bizet is not only killing off a character but restoring the hierarchical order of his time.

In recent years, productions have put new spins on this ending. In Cologne, the director Lydia Steier had Carmen wrest back enough agency to kill herself. At the Royal Opera House in London, Barrie Kosky’s androgynous Carmen rose up after her death with a shrug. In a 2018 production in Florence, directed by Leo Muscato, Carmen turned the gun on José and shot him. (That drew disapproving tweets from the future prime minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni.)

The musicologist Susan McClary, who has been publishing studies on class, race and sex in classical music since the early 1990s, said in a video interview that while the tensions in “Carmen” lend themselves to modern interpretation, the music makes the audience complicit in craving the destruction of Carmen and what she represents.

“The problem is that final chord, which seems to shout ‘hurrah!’” McClary said. Up until then, she argues, the slippery chromaticism of Carmen’s music has been pitted against the more stable lyricism that characterizes José and Micaëla, the childhood sweetheart sent by his mother to bring him to his senses. At the moment in which the bullfighter triumphs and José moves in for the kill, McClary said, “all of the dissonances that have led up to that in the confrontation between José and Carmen are suddenly resolved in that chord.”

Cracknell said of Carmen’s death: “We’re trying to frame that as an outcome that feels as much about gender as about two individuals.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Cracknell said that while it is inevitable that audiences feel pulled toward the dramatic resolution of the opera — which here is the death of a woman — she wants to “de-romanticize” Carmen’s death. When women are killed by their intimate partners, “the reality of these things is that they’re chaotic and messy and horrific and that they destroy lives,” she said. “So we’ve tried to replicate that rather than allowing it to feel like a kind of intimate, central moment of transition.”

In Akhmetshina, who is making her highly anticipated Met debut, Cracknell has an interpreter who brings deep experience with the work to the stage. At 27, Akhmetshina has already sung the role in so many productions — this is her seventh, and she has plans to star in two more, at London’s Royal Opera House and at Glyndebourne — that she can rattle off a list of different takes on the death scene. In an interview in between rehearsals, she spoke of Carmen as a character who continues to be unsettling.

“What is fascinating is that women hate Carmen and men hate Carmen,” Akhmetshina said, still wearing her costume of black leather trousers, a black cutout top and turquoise cowboy boots. “Women because they cannot have the same power, men because they cannot control her.” Even today, she said, “our world is not ready for Carmen. She’s absolutely honest and truthful.”

In one production, she said, her character willed José to kill her to put an end to his killing men he was jealous of. In another, she committed suicide in a desperate search for intense feelings.Earlier this season at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, in a staging set among organ traffickers, she joked that she spent so much time “cutting people in pieces” that she was ready to kill Carmen herself. “I was like, ‘just murder her,’” she said, “that’s it. Get rid of her.”

Akhmetshina said she identified with Carmen’s outsider perspective and love of freedom. She grew up in a village in Bashkortostan, the daughter of a single mother of three. “Until I moved to the city, I never thought that we were not OK,” she said. “We had a farm and everything was enough.” When she moved to a city, she encountered a different reality — of steep rents and airfares so high, her mother’s salary could barely cover the cost of a flight to Moscow. “The whole structure is built so that people from the small places stay in their place,” she said.

A scene from Cracknell’s “Carmen” with Akhmetshina (in blue cowboy boots), who said she identified with Carmen’s outsider perspective and love of freedom.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

“I needed space, I needed freedom,” Akhmetshina said. “I’m half Tatar, half Bashkir. If you look at the history of these small nations, we were constantly traveling around mountains, the forest, living in small communities that constantly moved around.” Her affinity with Carmen runs deeper than music, she said. “It’s kind of in my blood.”

Ethnic difference is not a factor in Cracknell’s production, which instead highlights gender and class tensions. For the choreographer Ann Yee, this was an opportunity to develop dances free of castanets and flamenco clichés. She described Carmen’s allure as connecting more to psychological yearnings than to Orientalist fantasy. “We’ve hooked into this idea of liberation and wildness, about what is on the other side of the journey, the border,” she said in an interview. “It’s this wild appetite that exists in Carmen and which radiates through the people that she is a part of.”

Yee said that removing “Carmen” from the Andalusian context also helped to sharpen its feminist message. “If you are looking too hard to situate it in one place, it becomes more difficult to realize that this could happen anywhere.” By the time Carmen meets her death, Yee suggested, “we can all hold ourselves accountable.”

“Women are still killed by their partners on an enormous scale in most places in the world,” Cracknell said. “And we are obsessed with that narrative.” In her production, she emphasizes the number of witnesses who watch José’s jealousy turn progressively more menacing without intervening.

In the Act III confrontation that results in Carmen being pushed to the floor, not one of her fellow smugglers steps in to help. Instead it is Micaëla, the character Bizet created as Carmen’s opposite and rival, sung here by the soprano Angel Blue, who offers a helping hand. Carmen accepts it, reluctantly, but lets go of it so quickly that she comes to her feet in an embarrassed stumble.

Cracknell said it was Blue who had come up with the idea in rehearsal. “Angel just instinctively walked over and helped her up,” she said. “It became this incredible, simple moment of solidarity between these two stepping outside of the trope of two women being pitted against each other and fighting at all costs to win the man. And in that moment, Micaëla’s choice was to support another woman and to see her as a victim in her own right.”

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