Georges Bizet’s beloved opera Carmen has been performed at the Metropolitan Opera almost a thousand times as of July 2013, making it the company’s third most-performed opera (behind La Bohème and Aida). For the 2009/10 season the Met commissioned the distinguished British theatre and film director Richard Eyre to create a new production as his Met debut. It was transmitted live in HD to movie theatres on 16 January 2010. As a repertory item brought back season after season, the Met needs a production which will stand the test of time. With this production, they have struck gold. 

The production, designed by Rob Howell, is updated to the time of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. The updating seems, however, only to affect the costumes, as the settings are timeless: a series of circular arched stone walls in various stages of dilapidation that rotate on turntables, to create (with smaller additional set pieces) the various scenes of the opera: the soldiers’ barracks, the town square, Lillas Pastia’s tavern, the smugglers’ hideout, and, ultimately, the exterior of the Seville bullring, where Carmen and Don José have their final, fatal encounter.

The video direction by Gary Halvorson brilliantly frames the detailed action, creating views that would be impossible to obtain in the opera house. Carmen is an opera filled with large ensembles, and the video makes a good compromise between capturing close-ups of the principals and showing enough of the overall stage picture to give a sense of the live production. Renée Fleming is the video broadcast host, who conducts brief interviews with the principals during intermissions.

The production is detailed, and the acting and singing are compelling, especially in Elina Garanca’s Carmen and Roberto Alagna’s Don José. Barbara Frittoli is a compassionate Micaela, but for all of her seemed naïveté, this Micaela is not to be pushed around by soldiers or smugglers. Teddy Tahu Rhodes was the toreador Escamillo, substituting in this broadcast for the originally announced Mariusz Kwiecien, who was ill and unable to perform. Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna may not have the most opulent voices one has ever heard for Carmen and Don José, but their chemistry together is magnetic, each character goading the other to the final scene outside the bullring. Teddy Tahu Rhodes has Escamillo’s swagger, though his voice seems pushed at the high end of his range. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the orchestra in a straightforward performance, with sensible but not stodgy tempos, accompanying the singers effectively. He pushed the music and drama forward, to salutary effect.

One of the innovations of this production is the use of dancers to set the tone of several scenes, even in places where Bizet did not provide music for dancing. At the point of the Act One prelude where Bizet introduces the so-called “fate” motif, a dark wall opens on the stage to show two dancers bathed in blood-red light, dancing a sensuous pas de deux to the menacing music. The moving wall closes, and suddenly, the music changes, the wall opens again on the sunny Spanish afternoon. At the opening of the tavern scene a group of gypsies dance an intricate flamenco-influenced set before the music begins, setting the scene for what is to come.

Richard Eyre saves one final coup de théâtre for the end: Don José has stabbed Carmen – in a shockingly realistic way – and as Carmen dies, the entire set suddenly revolves to show us the interior of the bull ring, with Escamillo standing over the bull he has just killed, the whole scene again bathed in the same blood-red light we saw at the during the opera’s orchestra prelude.