Chicago Opera Review: CARMEN (Lyric Opera)

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by Barnaby Hughes on February 14, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Because Bizet’s Carmen is so well-known, from the exuberance and buoyancy of the overture to the singalong Toreador Song, it’s hard to put together a production that is going to please everyone. One way to make things more interesting for the audience is to switch out some of the principal cast members halfway through the run. Or slavishly follow Bizet’s original score and have spoken dialogue instead of the later sung recitative. Maybe squeeze in lots of ballet, including a half-naked dancer dressed like a bull. And don’t forget to throw in the Chicago Children’s Chorus! While these changes and additions often make the production more compelling, they still don’t make it thoroughly enjoyable.

Perhaps one of the most fundamental problems is with the opera itself: Bizet’s tuneful music is eminently accessible; there’s a delightful mix of choruses, solo arias and duets; the sun-soaked Spanish setting with its gypsies and bullfighters is suitably exotic; and the story has romance and drama. But the violence toward women (i.e. of Don José toward Carmen, culminating in her untimely death) is hard to stomach.

Part of the problem is with the acting of the two principals. While Joseph Calleja’s Don José is convincing early on as the loyal son of a doting mother who will gladly carry out her wish that he marry Micaëla, his subsequent transformation into the lover of Carmen who forsakes the army and joins a band of gypsies is not. And that is not helped by Ekaterina Gubanova’s Carmen, who isn’t alluring enough to make the audience believe that Don José would leave the army for her, let alone kill her in order to prevent the bullfighter Escamillo from having her. This might have something to do with Gubanova’s portraying Carmen’s fiery independence of character so well, almost to the point of leaving her indifferent to the desires of men.

In my review of last season’s Roméo et Juliette, I noted that Calleja’s tenor, while gorgeous to listen to, seemed more appropriate to Italian opera than French. That impression was confirmed by his performance in Carmen. It is also why I would urge those who haven’t yet bought tickets to go see Brandon Jovanovich as Don José (March 16-25); his performance in Les Troyens earlier this season was stunning. While Gubanova’s singing is perfectly competent, it wasn’t nearly as thrilling as it could be, which is why I also wish I could hear Anita Rachvelishvili’s Carmen during the second half of the run, when the Georgian mezzo-soprano will be making her Lyric debut.

Instead, it is two of the supporting characters who make the most outstanding impressions in this production: Christian van Horn’s Escamillo and Eleonora Buratto’s Micaëla. Van Horn’s proud bullfighter steals every scene he is in and Buratto’s demure presence and emotion-laden soprano leave the audience wanting far more of her than her minor role permits.

Director and choreographer Rob Ashford brings a welcome dash of creativity to Carmen, above all, by the incorporation of ballet, not just in the gypsy scenes, but in the bullfighting scenes also. These bullfight dances function on many levels, literally representing Escamillo’s bullfight, ominously foreshadowing Carmen’s death, and perhaps even mirroring other conflicts, such as the fight between Escamillo and Don José or between Don José and Carmen. A lighter touch is the substitution of children’s choruses for adult choruses in the opening and closing acts.

In terms of design, the production mostly works, especially the inn scene of Act II. In contrast to David Rockwell’s more abstract set designs for the other acts, Lillas Pastia’s inn is fully realized in texture, color, and detail. The costumes, wigs, and makeup are beautifully done throughout, from the embroidered jackets of the bullfighters to the layered skirts of the gypsy women. One miss, however, is the unflattering black dresses of the factory girls in Act I; denim would seem to be more appropriate.

Lovers of Carmen won’t want to miss this production, which has much that’s new, interesting, and different. But perhaps Lyric has tried to do too much with it. Those who can should see the second run, March 16-25, with its more promising cast. (Warning: tickets are selling out fast.)

photos by Todd Rosenberg and Andrew Cioffi

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on March 25, 2017
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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