An unsatisfying “Carmen” at Lyric Opera

Classical Music Critic

What: “Carmen”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through March 25

A new production of “Carmen” opened Saturday night at Lyric Opera of Chicago and it has sadly left much of the pungent bite of this classic opera unrealized.

As created by Bizet (and his librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy), the gypsy Carmen is a fiery temptress who chews briefly on a man before spitting him out. She lives zestfully outside the law and is governed only by fate. From the moment she meets Don José, a simple soldier devoted to his mother, her fate is sealed. The opera is a journey through obsession, as José moves from fascination with Carmen, to passionate love and then on to jealousy of the most destructive kind.

This production of “Carmen,” first seen at Houston Grand Opera (with a different cast), never ignites because Ekaterina Gubanova has yet to grasp the essence of the title character. The Russian mezzo-soprano has a lovely voice, and she sounds pretty throughout the performance. But she has no fire, no sensuality, no ferocity, no magic. She doesn’t tease, she doesn’t smolder. She is only the weak opposite of Micaëla, the good girl from José’s home town. That’s hardly enough to carry the opera.

Even the marvelous performances of the rest of the cast is not enough to make up for Gubanova’s deficits. Tenor Joseph Callja is a towering Don José who masterfully maps out the soldier’s sorry demise. When he is reunited with Micaëla in the first act, his singing is dutiful and chaste. His sound becomes increasingly passionate as his fascination with Carmen grows and he is masterful as he becomes unhinged.

Soprano Eleonora Buratto creates a splendid Micaëla, giving this small town girl both dignity and strength all the while maintaining her simple and pure love for the man she thought she’d marry.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn is terrific as the toreador Escamillo. Slim, trim, tall and handsome, he has masculine swagger and plenty of charisma as he delivers the “Toreador Song.”

The second reason this “Carmen” fails lies at the feet of Rob Ashford, a director whose experience is almost entirely in musical theater. His resume proves he’s a wonderful song and dance man, but he treats “Carmen” as song on the one side and dance on the other, as if they are chemicals which must never be mixed.

We have a few lavish scenes with dancers who are not a part of our story, and seem to interrupt it. And we have scenes with Carmen which scream out for dancing, but where Ashford leaves her immobile on the stage like a pile of dirty laundry. He does attempt to integrate Carmen into a dance in the second act, but this backfires. The other dancers are lithe and exude sexuality making Carmen and her unflattering dress look like a cleaning lady who has stumbled onto the stage. Rather than making her more fetching, her lack of sensuality is reinforced.

Also annoying is that Ashford has inserted a dancing symbol into the proceedings. Nearly every time the orchestra plays the famous Fate Motive, a half-dressed man wearing a bull mask dances. Since the bull dies in the ring, he surely represents death. What is obvious isn’t necessarily deplorable. But the director is so in love with his own idea that in the final act, when José and Carmen are engaged in their final confrontation, one of the most shocking denouements in all of opera, Ashford interrupts this fatal encounter with one dancer pulling death (who has just died at the back of the stage, so you can be sure now that he really is death) past our principals. Literally dragging his symbol into the climax of the opera could hardly be more aggravating to the audience. What’s next for Ashford? An emoji line beneath the supertitles to illustrate each of the many motives in Wagner’s “Ring?”

This “Carmen” has been updated to a setting during the Spanish Civil War, which seems pointless. Not because updating operas is wrong, but to do so without any added value is pure arrogance on the part of the director. But for some of the costumes, we would have no idea that we have an “update,” and but for the note in the program, we would have no idea we are supposed to be in 1930s Spain. Not actually infusing the visuals with some aspect of fascism seems an opportunity lost. The opening act might just as well have been happening at the back of Francesco’s 1980 Tapas Bar.

The sets are easily forgettable. Act II looks like a late 20th century suburban supper club and Act IV resembles the outside of a fancy shopping mall.

Harry Bicket conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra and is particularly persuasive with the orchestral preludes before each act. The Lyric Opera Chorus maintains their consistently high standard. Members of the Chicago Children’s Choir add youthful fun to the opera. Too bad that these singers were used so unimaginatively, almost always configured in straight lines or ungainly clumps.

This production uses the original spoken dialogue (which is a very small part of the opera) rather than recitatives that were not the product of Bizet. The amplification quality was spotty, but likely to improve through the run.

Later performances (March 16-25) will feature Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen and Brandon Jovanovich as Don José.