Robert B. Frederick in Variety:
“Carmen” is not exactly a role reserved for Negro mezzo sopranos, but there’s a small trend that way at the Met, the latest to take over being Shirley Verrett. She came close to scoring on her first try and with further performances could make the role her own.
Meantime there were things to overcome, some within her control, though hardly that silly set held over from last season’s “new” production. Incidentally, the Met could improve things by using the odd first act setting and then use parts of the new mobile, now-it-is-now-it’s-changed scenery,
When the curtain rises on act one the audience is confronted with what appears to be the exterior of a bullfight arena, curving the wrong way. It can’t be a bullfight arena, however, as Carmen and the cigarette girls enter and leave it, with the implication that it’s a cigarette factory. Worse than this is the escape business which requires Carmen to possess the nimbleness of a mountain goat, scampering up and down its various levels while everyone watches her escape indifferently,
The silky-toned Miss Verrett makes the most of the situation, however, and only occasionally sounds winded by her travels. She does display one red herring of her own, however, by frequently taking the stance of a gypsy dancer on a table top and then doing nothing more than clicking her castanets.
Jon Vickers’ Don Jose, if not the epitome of the Spanish soldier, is at least honey-voiced and his Flower Song is on the spectacular (or Jussi Bjoerling) side. Possibly the chief delight of the evening is Mirella Freni’s Micaela (despite an unattractive hairdo) and she dominates even Vickers in all their scenes. Justino Diaz, the most athletic and character-correct Escamillo in the history of the Met, is also extremely effective in his arias, as are Morley Meredith’s Zuniga, Russell Christopher’s Morales (substituting at [first night] for the ailing Ron Bottcher), Lilian Sukis’ Frasquita and Marcia Baldwin’s Mercedes.
The staging follows Jean-Louis Barrault (who might well have come back to check on his conception), but the conducting of Zubin Mehta seems adequately Hispanic, redolent with held-in passions, and exploding at the proper moments. It was too bad that the rhythms didn’t inspire Alicia Markova’s dancers to something a bit closer to the flamenco feeling, but that may be the Barrault staging. While handsome, they move like a debuting group at the Delacorte Theatre.
The singers are certain to improve with further exposure in their roles, and particularly Miss Verrett, but the present set will not.