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Lyric Opera of Chicago
Ekaterina Gubanova in the title role and Christian van Horn as Escamillo in Lyric Opera of Chicago's Carmen, directed by Rob Ashford
© Todd Rosenberg Photograpy 2017
Joseph Calleja as Don José
© Andrew Cioffi
Eleonora Buratto as Micaëla
© Todd Rosenberg Photograpy 2017
one of the most tuneful of operas, offers wonderful opportunities for the right singers; is also notoriously difficult to stage well. Lyric Opera’s new-to-Chicago production of Bizet’s masterpiece (seen Feb. 11) demonstrated both sides of that equation.
In her first Carmen, Ekaterina Gubanova was impressive. Her ample mezzo delivered the habanera with plenty of insinuation and voluptuous tone. The card scene was touched with resignation and a dark vocal coloring on the repeated “la mort.” Gubanova had the character’s insouciant sexuality down, though a sense of mercurial danger was needed. Joseph Calleja sang beautifully as Don José. The tenor graced “La fleur que tu m'avais jetée” with the rarely heard pianissimo shading Bizet asks for, including an exquisite diminuendo on the climactic high B-flat. Soprano Eleonora Buratto, fondly remembered for her Alice in Riccardo Muti’s Falstaff at CSO last season, made a notable Lyric debut as a spirited, vocally alluring Micaëla. Christian van Horn delivered a swaggering Escamillo, and he handled the role’s rangy tessitura with polished musicianship and interpretive flair.
Bradley Smoak, the best actor onstage, intoned a solid Zuniga. The smugglers were a fresh-faced lot, but Emmett O’Hanlon’s Dancaïre and Mingjie Lei’s Remendado deftly joined the Frasquita and Mercédès of Diana Newman and Lindsay Metzger to partner Gubanova in a delightful quintet. Takaoki Onishi was a sturdy Moralès.
The production looked like a yeoman’s attempt at creating a chef-d'oeuvre on a tight budget. Director Rob Ashford updated matters to the era of the Spanish civil war. David Rockwell’s settings rendered the piece in spare, presentational style with a series of variously reconfigured curving walls that suggested stonework here, an interior there. Costume designer Julie Weiss provided the 1930s wardrobe, and lighting designer Donald Holder bathed it all it hot Sevillian sunshine. It was entirely serviceable but a bit shoddy, and one could not escape a nagging thought that these visuals simply did not belong in a top-tier international house. Lillas Pastia’s tavern, in particular, looked like it might appropriately occupy the stage of a state university theater department.
Ashford incorporated a dance element that was often enlivening; especially in a cleverly choreographed Act IV entr’acte. When the dance stopped, things fell into a morass of awkward blocking and tepid character interaction (an opportunity lost, as the Guiraud recitatives were jettisoned in favor of the original dialogue). The “fate theme” was visually manifested by a muscular dancer sporting a bull mask, who reappeared at key moments. This device proved dramatically questionable—acutely so in the dénouement, as this mini Minotaur’s fatal pas de deux with a balletic toreador stole focus from the protagonists. This is one of the great character confrontations in all opera, and a time when conceptual conceit needs to get out of the way. This Carmen was not the gifted Ashford’s best work.
One might have feared that Baroque specialist Harry Bicket would be too polite with this score, but he wasn’t. The toreador music was shot through with testosterone, and the Act III entr’acte was exceptionally beautiful. (Kudos to harp, flute and clarinet principals Marguerite Lynn Williams, Marie Tachouet and Charlene Zimmerman.) Both adult and children’s choruses were excellent. Whatever the evening’s deficits, people still left humming those tunes. —Mark Thomas Ketterson