A review of the Lyric’s “Carmen”

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Photo by Todd Rosenberg

What a treat, to witness one of the great masterpieces of art!

“Carmen” is one of those few operas that is so well known that there is little, if no, room for error by any performer. What magnifies this stringent demand is that Georges Bizet’s signature piece of music drama calls for far more vocalists to step into the spotlight than any opera I can think of. The instrumental forces are also needed for consistently brilliant and expressive playing throughout a rather longish composition. Fortunately, the Lyric Opera of Chicago was musically up to the challenges and once again demonstrated why it is one of the world’s most prominent opera companies.

With so much that was so good, where should we begin? Before we get to the singers, let’s focus on those others who helped make this production worthwhile. Harry Bicket very ably conducted the marvelous Lyric orchestra, making the most of the famous overture, the preludes to Act II and III, and the ballet introducing Act IV.

Like any true musical masterpiece, every time you hear it you hear something new. This time — and I know it’s a small thing — but I heard something that made this evening unforgettable for me. In Act III, when Escamillo leaves the smugglers, his “Toreador” theme is played in the orchestra by one of the favorite scoring approaches of the Italian masters from Rossini to Puccini in virtually all their operas — the cello ensemble. No doubt Bizet mastered the technique when he studied in Italy as winner of the “Prix de Rome.”

Not only is this Lyric “Carmen” bolstered by instrumental virtuosity, certain scenes, especially in Act II and IV, feature some really fine ballet. The dancers are so in tune with each other that I figured that they were some ballet company hired for the production. But in the program each dancer is listed separately, so it is to their great credit that they could appear to be a regular-working unit. They are Shannon Alvis, Judson Emery, Alejandro Fonseca, Ashley Elizabeth Hale, Shanna Heverly, Marissa Lynn Horton, Jeffery B. Hover, Jr., Jessica Wolfrum Raun, Todd Rhoades, Abigail Simon, Malachi Squires and JP Tenuta.

Verdi is called the “Papa dei cori,” because his opera choruses are so popular and often contribute significant material to his dramas. There is no single Verdi opera, however, that compares to Bizet’s “Carmen” with the number of important and different types of choruses. As many operas do, “Carmen” begins with a male chorus, “Sur la place, chacun passe.” This is quickly followed by a neat boys’ chorus, “Avec la garde montante.” Both the adult and children’s chorus were admirably done.

Soon it is the women’s turn, and the Lyric ladies did a fine job on the allegorical cigarette-smoking chorus, “La cloche a sonné.” The combined male-female chorus provided sturdy background support for Carmen’s solo. The chorus again is soon featured when a fight in the cigarette factory prompts the agitated women to emerge singing. With interspersed declaratory phrases sung by the soldiers, all this was done keeping the excitement level high.

In Act II the Lyric chorus achieved a peak of elation with its “Vivat, vivat le Toréro,” the prelude to the famous “Toreador song.” After a change of costumes the chorus came back to effectively sing as smugglers whisking Don Jose away. The costumes remained the same for the well-sung chorus to begin Act III, “Écoute, écoute, compagnons.” But the beginning of Act IV is where the full chorus had its grand climax with a boisterous “Les voici! Voici la quadrille!”

The Lyric Opera choruses were worth the price of admission!

As Zuniga, bass-baritone Bradley Smoak sang well but probably acted better. A surprisingly excellent performance was turned in by baritone Takaoki Onoshi. In his banter with Micaëla at the beginning, his strong singing made me wonder for a second if he were a principal. Baritone Emmett O’Hanlon and tenor Minjie Lei as Dancaïre and Remendado respectively do not have big parts. They are important dramatically as the smuggler leaders but their greatest role musically is their participation in the wickedly difficult quintet in Act II, “Nous avons en tête une affaire!” They sounded fine to me.

Two other members of this quintet are Carmen’s girlfriends, Frasquita and Mercédès, sung by soprano Diana Newman and mezzo Lindsay Metzger. Not only did these ladies sing superbly in the quintet, but they were also outstanding in the Act II gypsy song, “Les tingles des sistres tintaient,” the Act III card-playing song, “Mêlons! Coupons!” and in Act IV when they warn Carmen about Don Jose.

Carmen, of course is the star of the show, and has the biggest part. The Lyric Carmen was performed by mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, who did justice to the music, and sang with a beautiful deep sonority. But she came off a tad too Nordic for my taste. Likewise baritone Christian Van Horn did a fine job as Escamillo, although definitely not the definitive toreador.

Tenor Joseph Calleja is an interesting case. He actually sings very well, and his signature aria from this opera, “La fleur que tu m’avee jetée,” was really beautifully done. Musically, I don’t think I could ask much more from any tenor. Yet there was something that detracted from his performance as a whole. The more I think about it I believe that he was not costumed properly. If he had a less slovenly appearance I’m sure it would have helped.

Lyric had another nice surprise for its “Carmen” customers. This was the artistry of soprano Eleonora Buratto as Micaëla. She was head and shoulders the best singer of the principals in the performance I saw. The role of Don Jose’s “girl next door” is not a big one, but is very important musically and dramatically as a contrast to Carmen. Ms Buratto was excellent in the Act I duet, “Parle-moi de ma mère,” but it was in Act III that everyone knew that they were listening to a top-notch soprano. “C’est les contrabandiers le refuge ordinaire” was the aria that stunned the crowd and made them take notice. Let’s have her in Chicago again!

About John Rizzo

John H. Rizzo has lectured and written extensively on opera and Italian culture. Many of his essays can be read on www.italianoperachicago.com, the official Internet organ of the Italian Opera Company of Chicago. Retired now from teaching at Oakton College, Rizzo has published five novels, with a sixth due out in September. He is a committee member and judge of the LiPuma-Raimondi Vocal Contest, hosted annually by the Italian Cultural Center at the Casa Italia in Stone Park.

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