I am no student of Carmen, the classic French 1875 Georges Bizet opera, nor of opera in general, but I very much enjoyed my first excursion to Chicago’s Lyric Opera House on Friday night to see the current production. The title role is undoubtedly both a burden and a feather in the cap – living up to the mighty Carmens of operas past would prove a challenge for any diva, while holding the role onstage at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is one of opera’s biggest feathers indeed. I, for one, was captivated by Ekaterina Gubanova’s vocals and stage presence. Carmen needs to turn all heads; there was never a moment my eyes were not drawn to her. She holds onto notes like she holds onto her lovers, rolling over them and using them as a noose with which she drags the audience around the stage.
The male leads, tenor Joseph Calleja in the role of the passionately murderous lover/soldier Don Jose and baritone Christian Van Horn as Escamillo, a cocksure Toreador, were also excellent. Don Jose has a couple of beautiful solos, during one of which he convinces Carmen to love him (he had fallen for her during her own Act One Habanera, one of the most well-known and enduring of all opera themes). In Act Two, the baritone Escamillo is given another of the most memorable solos in opera – Toreador. As he struts around the stage somewhat comically flaunting his fame he embodies the bullfighting culture of Spain, replete with its swooning fandom. The gypsy Carmen catches his eye, and he hers, setting into motion her conflicting commitments to two men.
Throughout the opera, Micaela, a village-acquaintance of Don Jose’s family, acts as a foil to the raw sexuality of Carmen and the ways of the mountain-faring gypsies – her quiet pining for Don Jose and her appeals to tradition and family come in the form of beautiful arias. The role is filled by soprano Eleonora Buratto, and her vocals are absolutely captivating – every bit the equal of Gubanova’s. What a treat to have two divas on stage!
The presence throughout the opera of spectacular dancers adds to the artistic beauty of the work. Especially notable is the recurring Bull character, literally present for Escamillo’s bull-fight in the final act but surreally representative of human desire and passion throughout the production. I wish I could credit him but the program notes don’t specify who the dancer is, a rather clear oversight in the credits, from my perspective.
The sets throughout are well-designed, but in the final act the sunny bullfighting ring in Seville and its surrounding plaza are particularly engaging. The stage lighting and silhouetting of the cast in the background provide context for Escamillo and the dancer/bull in the rear, with Carmen and the murderous Don Jose at the fore. The opera reaches its climax and the stage resembles a boldly framed work of art.
Add to all of that the Chicago Children’s Choir, the ensemble Act Two finale, stunning flamenco and toreador dancing and costuming, as well as the world-class musicians of the Lyric Orchestra, and the production is well-worth the price of admission. For my part, the final moments provide the cherry on top of the opera’s story and captivating music: Gubanova’s gorgeous gown and the stage’s final blood-red curtain flowing down on the dying Carmen.
Thanks for reading.
Carmen runs through March 25 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. A new Carmen (Anita Rachvelishvili) and Don Jose (Brandon Jovanovich) will take the stage for productions beginning March 16.